Thursday, July 07, 2005

On nishtana hateva: does "nature change"?

Lately (okay, over the past two days) the J-Blogosphere has been abuzz about the idea of nishtanu hateva, that 'nature changes', which is offered as early as the Baalei Ha-tosafos and as late as last week by people trying to explain how it could be that seemingly straightforward, observable phenomenon described in the Talmud are different than what we ourself observe to be the reality.

R. Moshe Feinstein used the term, but his son-in-law R. Moshe Tendler, maintains that when he used the term he meant, essentially, that our understanding of nature changed. Thus, he used the classic terminology in a different, some would say, 'politically correct' way, but he didn't actually believe that things like anatomy or cosmology changed since Talmudic times.

Some have pointed out that changes in things like the average onset of menstruation do change, even over decades. That's true, but attributtable to diet and lifestlye. The same doesn't apply across the board to cosmology, for example. The moon was never made of cheese or spirit.

I had the following exchange:

Someone asked, with his tongue-in-cheek "How about shechitah? What if animals suddenly changed and didn't have necks anymore?" to which I replied that "nishtanu hateva is used to explain discrepancies between animal anatomy in the Talmud and what we know. If that really happened, who is to say that one fine day, maybe in a thousand years, there won't be a shechita crisis when its realized that frankly animals are totally different than all the classical literature on shechita." Also, of course, tongue in cheek.

Then I was asked a fair question:

"What other explanation is there? [Chazal] are describing what they saw, they slaughtered animals and describe them. Do you have a different explanation?"

That is a serious question and deserves a serious response. The fact is that for some reason really smart people of the ancient world believed really bizarre things about nature, even things that simple controlled experiments would demonstrate to be otheerwise. There are all kinds of anatomic drawings from hundreds of years ago that are complete and total nonsense. There are maps from only a few hundred years ago that are simply wrong.

The point is that we can think of endless examples of when the ancients and the not-so-ancients
plainly got things wrong. And they were brilliant. These examples from Chazal are part of a larger pattern. Humans didn't really begin to systematically make sense of the world until pretty recently, and even now plenty of our own knowledge will be found to be quite primitive to our descendents, although perhaps in a different way than we perceive midieval science.

Alternatively, it is entirely plausible that some Gemaras are simply misunderstood by us. Recently I had a discussion with someone about the identity of "Afriki" which is mentioned in the Gemara. If you ask a hundred lamdanim what that means I am sure only a very few will know that in Talmudic times "Afriki" referred to a place in Carthage, rather than the continent as a whole. There are other examples of communication breakdowns between the Gemara and us simply because so much has changed in that time, even the intent of words that we may be able to translate correctly and yet still miss the point because of idiom or incorrectly punctuating or other reasons.

Resorting to nishtana hateva made sense, as Bluke has said, to the baalei ha-tosafos since their own knowledge of the world wasn't radically different from that in Talmudic times. That explanation in the literal sense of the words is no longer tenable to us who can make heart transplants and walk on the moon.

And don't think I am guilty of hubris by that last line above. I completely agree that we are not any more brilliant than our ancestors, dwarves on the shoulders of giants and all that. But when we paint ourselves into a corner where we have to acknowledge that which we see otherwise then we are being intellectually dishonest.

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