Dvar Torah Tazria: Anatomy, Physiology and Rabbis

How fortuitous it is that I can use last week’s lengthy disagreement with Yoreh K’chetz as a springboard for this week’s Dvar Torah.

Last week, Yoreh K’chetz (henceforth abbreviated YK) accused me of possessing a “mind [that] is too limited to understand what they [Chazal] are trying to say” and “need[ing] to go back to school if [I] actually believe Chazal make silly or ridiculous statements.”  He then dismissed my objective here at FrumSatire, wondering “what [I am] doing writing so called Dvar Torahs on this blog.”

I responded to everything YK said, but he refused to budge from his position — and he is likely upset that I do not budge from mine.  After discussing these events with a rabbinical adviser of mine, I have come to the following conclusion: I was wrong to think that I would convince YK of anything by attacking his position in a purely intellectual form.  I am abnormal, in that I am able to think devoid of any emotional component — most people do not do this.  On the simplest level, perhaps a basketball fan can serve as a good analogy; if he or she roots for the same team since adolescence, it doesn’t matter how bad the team is — this person will focus on the unlikely existence of some potential, even if everyone else know that this team stinks.  In the same way, YK maintains the Lubavitcher Rebbe as sacred and places him on a pedestal, and if someone says something to violate his majesty, it cannot be tolerated.

I’ll admit to baiting YK during last week’s debate, and because I did so, no matter how much sense I was making and how little sense he was making, it didn’t matter, because someone arguing from emotion doesn’t regard sense as relevant; the basketball fan doesn’t care how many times his team has lost — all that matters is that this year might be the year.  So quoting him statistics won’t change his mind — his team is the best and he’s not even listening to your argument.

Which brings me to YK’s overall challenge: how can I call the Lubavitcher Rebbe ignorant?  In defense, I responded that it was because he was ignorant.  And that was the end of our discussion, really — because if you review it, you’ll see that YK no longer responds to what I’m saying.  He merely continues to put words into my mouth and denounce those words, rather than the ones that actually came out of my mouth.  He did this because he had nothing to respond — my point was solid, and he knew that, but that wasn’t what he was arguing, as he even later pointed out himself.  He merely took issue with my indifference to the Rebbe’s stature.  Had I been nicer, he would have agreed.  Personally, I think that’s silly.  “Hear the truth from whomever says it,” asserts Maimonides in the introduction to his commentary on Ethics of the Fathers. But I’m not calling YK silly ( I know he wouldn’t approve of that) — I just think that the emes (truth) should beat out shalom (peace) with the objective that people should be able to know the emes without it being hidden by shalom, because too often, that’s what happens.  So that’s what I was doing, and YK didn’t like it.

To address YK’s accusations: I do assert with complete confidence that the rabbis of not only this century, but also those of the Talmud, can and in a very many bunch of places said things that would now be considered silly.  Let me first explain this statement, and then we’ll look at some examples.  I can’t recall the quotee, but there is some famous guy in the field of computers who is quoted as having said something like, “home computers will never be a reality, because a computer will never be small enough to fit in anything smaller than an entire room.”  If we evaluate that statement now, all will agree it’s pretty funny — in fact, that’s why anyone will bother quoting it.  But when it was said, it was probably accepted as self-evident.  At the time, just the thought of trying to fit the coils and transistor mainframes and heat sinks and fans and all the other stuff that I’m obviously unaware of because of my ignorance when it comes to computers into anything smaller than a large room would be classified as ridiculous!  And everyone knew it.  But with time and new technology, everyone knew something else, and that continued until everyone now knows that computers can fit in the palm of your hand and memory cards smaller than a dime can hold 32 GB.  Who would have thought?!

So the rabbis of the Talmud said some really strange things.  And so did the people after them, and the people after them, all the way up until yesterday.  But that’s because we know something today that we didn’t know yesterday.  Was was Aristotle ignorant when he denied the potential existence of magnetism?  I’d say no, only because no one knew about magnetism at the time — so if you like, you can call everyone ignorant, but if everyone is ignorant, is anyone ignorant?  Let’s say there’s absolute ignorance and relative ignorance.  Because the level of technology was where it was when Aristotle walked the earth, there was an absolute ignorance about many things.  People thought that life could come from dirt, in what was called the spontaneous generation, and everybody thought that — even the rabbis.  Later, people realized that such an idea derived from a poor understanding of the universe, and so it was rejected — not by some people, not by the majority, but by everyone.  So, barring a miracle (which we’re not discussing here), life comes from life comes from life, and anyone who says otherwise is just being ridiculous, no matter how many letters they have after their name or how long their beard is.

Tazria opens with the halachic significance of childbirth, moves onto some discussion related to ritual purity and impurity that arises from different states of pregnancy and immediate post-pregnancy and then shifts into a discussion of tzara’as that continues into next week’s parsha.  The topic of niddah is a very odd one, and one that is intricately tied into human anatomy and physiology.  But if we say that the rabbis knew nothing more of reality than what everyone knew at the time, how can we reconcile the odd things they say with what we now know to be untrue?

In Niddah (57b), Rashi explains that a woman who urinates while standing (supposedly because she is in such dire need to urinate and cannot even wait to sit down first) will be impure because the urine will enter her uterus and will come out again, with uterine blood (which is impure).  While human males possess a unified genitourinary tract at the orifice to the external world (in that the male urethra carries both urine and seminal fluid), human females do not — the female genital tract does not empty through the urethra (through which urine flows), but through the vaginal opening.  So what does that mean?  Well, no one other than Rashi and his immediate pupils can know, but we can suppose that he was mistaken in his understanding of anatomy and physiology because Ibn Zuhr (1091–1161), a contemporary of Rashi (1040-1105), was the earliest known physician to perform human autopsy and dissection, and it was only Ibn al-Nafis (1213–1288) who was later credited with discrediting so many of the erroneous theories of physiology and anatomy of the human organs.  There’s a lot more that can be talked about, such as blood somehow getting from the oviducts to the cervix by passing through some non-existent passageway around the uterus, uterine blood becoming milk, and lots of other stuff.  YK claims that the remedies mentioned in the 7th perek of Gittin were probably the best remedies available at the time — yet there are numerous examples of non-sequitur remedies given, such as that given for night blindness or nosebleeds.  Utter nonsense, which is fine, because doctors knew almost nothing back then, and the rabbis who quoted them can be held no more liable for not understanding the universe as we do now.  But don’t pretend, in 2011, that these were ever worthwhile remedies.

So what does this say about Rashi?  He was no greater a fool than Galen or Aristotle for not knowing these things, because no one knew these things — that’s the level of sophistication people had attained Medieval times.  Everybody tried their best and there was always going to be someone else making a breakthrough.

But to pretend that rabbis never made mistakes when it’s so clear that they did…that’s criminal.  R’ Zvi Pesach Frank might not have been a good basketball player, and he might not have even owned a pair of sneakers, but that didn’t detract from his saintliness.  And if he were to walk into a lab and say, “I just finished Bava Kamma, so I think I’ll mix some of these chemicals together…” — he was no scientist.  When he had to answer a halachic question that depended on a medical reality, he would probably call the top doctor at Sha’arei Zedek Medical Center.  So if he answered a question that related to a pathogen (a disease causing entity), he would have said that there are no pathogens that do not contain a nucleic acid — either DNA, RNA or both.  And he would have been wrong, because prions don’t contain nucleic acid, but they weren’t discovered until well after he died in 1960.  And it would have no bearing on his saintliness or his righteousness or his insight or his scholarship — but to pretend that it would…that’s ridiculous.  And the Lubavitcher Rebbe: he was not a scientist and his stature as a community leader and great scion of Torah scholarship does not lend itself to him knowing everything about everything and always being right.

Haredi Jewry basically takes the position that YK took last week (or, more precisely, vice versa) — they don’t argue the facts necessarily, they just shout “slippery slope” and ignore the meat of the debate.  But what about the slippery slope down which they descend — that all rabbis are completely correct all of the time.  Wasn’t that YK’s argument last week?

I’ll close with my mission statement, just to clear up why I do what I do here.  I think Judaism suffers from a terrible lack of self-reflection.  People do things and say things and may go through their entire life without ever thinking about things — it’s sad, but it’s true.  And these people are urged to continue on this path and to raise their children along the same path, all in the name of Judaism.  But Judaism is reality and truth, so why fear anything, if we’ve got the truth?  Why is apikorsus dangerous…it should be welcomed!  Let’s hear all the stupid things there are to hear so we can show how stupid they are and continue on our path, knowing that what we do is true.  The common man, however — he’s the problem.  The common man doesn’t think.  The common man can’t think.  That’s why he’s so common (in that he lacks any special status), but unfortunately, he’s very common (in that he’s very widespread).  Apikorsus is dangerous for the unthinking common man because he doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to separate right from wrong, good from evil or sense from nonsense.  So to protect us all, one approach is to, well, protect us all.  No one may know anything, because then someone will fall into the trap.

That works great in the shtetl.  Well, maybe that works great in the shtetl.  But it doesn’t work in NYC, or most other placed in the world in 2011.  People hear things, people read things and people find things out.  And when they ask their rabbi and their rabbi says, “That doesn’t matter, go learn and stop asking such questions.  Don’t you know that scientists are heretics?” — that’s a tremendous problem.  So I write the way I do for anyone who’s ever gotten such a response, to show them that it’s not that there’s no answer to your question — it’s just that you asked the wrong person.  You asked one of the people who think they still live in the shtetl and think that you do too.  Maybe they do, but you certainly don’t, and neither do I.