Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Ellul 5766 - September 13, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
Why Study Half-True Science When You Can Learn True Torah?

C. Sidney Burwell, the dean of Harvard Medical School from 1935 to 1949, is reported to have told his students, "Half of what you are taught as medical students will in ten years have been shown to be wrong, and the trouble is, none of your teachers knows which half."

This is no less true in our days of all science, as a short survey of scientific mistakes and revisions that were reported just in the past two months shows.

Perhaps the biggest news is that Pluto is no longer considered a planet. Whoever learned that there are nine planets in the Solar System should unlearn it. Now there are eight. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) made it official about a month ago. Suddenly, no one has to explain or excuse why Chazal never spoke about it, or show some obscure passage that might possibly be interpreted to show that Chazal really did know about Pluto. Poof! A democratic vote of the current membership of the IAU and there is nothing to explain or excuse.

It was recently reported that through December 31, 1994, anyone who reported seeing a giant wave in the ocean of more than 50 feet would have been dismissed as someone who might also believe in mermaids and sea monsters. Scientists assured us that their established models of waves show that such phenomena are statistical improbabilities that happen no more than once in 10,000 years. Moreover, thousands of ships ply the ocean every day, and have been doing so for hundreds of years. If such waves happen even once in a while, why are there no credible reports of such rogue waves?

On January 1, 1995 there was a credible report: a 61-foot wave hit an oil platform in the North Sea off of Norway that was equipped with a reliable measuring and recording device.

1994 was not the middle of the Dark Ages. It is pretty safe to say that the world was just as scientifically enlightened then as it is today. But the report on January 1, 1995 shook oceanographers up and they looked at the subject again and they found (with satellite studies) that not only are they not rare at all, but that at any given moment about 10 rogue waves are churning through the world's oceans, and many of them are much larger even than that first measured giant wave, reaching up to 100 feet (30M)!

Unlike the redefinition of Pluto, the discovery of giant waves has no evident consequences for the integrity of Torah knowledge as seen by science, since the passages mentioning giant waves are obviously allegoric. Nonetheless, it should undermine the status of scientific "knowledge" since it provides an example of a scientific belief, backed by extensive observation and elaborate mathematical theory, that was spectacularly overturned.

Other recent scientific discoveries and revelations include the assertion that the residents of Qumran near the Dead Sea had nothing to do with the famous scrolls that were discovered in caves nearby. The scrolls, mostly written by people who were far removed from normative Jewish tradition, depict many exotic beliefs which suggests that the writers followed unusual practices. It was assumed that they lived in isolation in Qumran so as not to come in conflict with more conventional Jews. The latest digs at Qumran by two seasoned Israeli archaeologists over a period of a decade show, according to Dr. Yitzhak Magen and Dr. Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority, that Qumran was a center of the contemporary pottery industry for at least a century when it was destroyed in 3828 (68 CE) by the Romans. "The association between Qumran, the caves and the scrolls is, thus, a hypothesis lacking any factual archaeological basis," wrote Dr. Magen in Biblical Archaeology Review.

A recent article in the New York Times (August 22, 2006) quoted Dr. William Leo Smith, an ichthyologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, about poisonous fish as saying, "With very few exceptions, everything we thought was wrong." There are about six times as many poisonous fish as previously thought, for example.

Twenty-five years ago, the one thing a parent knew about childhood illnesses was that for an ear infection the child must get antibiotics. About two years ago the American Association of Pediatrics declared that 85-95 percent of the antibiotics taken for ear infection did not help the patient, and another well-established medical principle was revised. Before the revised guidelines were issued, 10 million antibiotic prescriptions were written each year for ear infections.

If someone is a doctor, or an astronomer, or a professional oceanographer, or an archaeologist, then of course he or she must learn the conventional wisdom of their field.

However if we are just private people for whom Torah is our trade, and our desire is to learn truth and only truth, why should we spend our time studying "facts" half of which will, in ten years, be shown to have been wrong? Must we resolve scientific challenges to Torah when science may discard the underlying material some time in the future?

This we know (for example): It is a permanent truth that there are four categories of damagers — arba ovos nezikin (Bava Kama 2a). This is true now, it has been true at least since Torah was created, and it will remain true. Let us stick to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

If we learn this today, we will not have to unlearn it tomorrow — or ever. If we learn this, we have acquired a piece of truth, and made ourselves closer to Hashem.

When we learn Torah we join the chain of Chazal that stretches back to Moshe Rabbenu on Sinai, and will stretch forward forever. The Torah is eternal, true and unchanging.

All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.