Sunday, April 11, 2010

How did Chazal know that 'drop exudes from the brain and develops into semen'?

Since this has been a recent theme, and since on parashat Tazria I already discussed the midrash on how to have male children, and Chizkuni's recommendation of how to have male children:

[Rav Aharon Feldman The Eye of the Storm]As an example of lack of knowledge of contemporary science leading to rather silly statements, I put forth the following from Rabbi Aharon Feldman's article (presumably also in his book, Eye of the Storm) demonstrating that Chazal knew scientific facts via ruach hakodesh. He writes:
How did they know that "a drop exudes from the brain and develops into semen35" without having known that the pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, emits a hormone which controls the production of semen? None of this could have been discovered by experimentation. Either they had a tradition directly teaching them these facts, or they knew them by applying principles which were part of the Oral Torah regarding the inner workings of the world. 
35: Source from Kabbala works cited many places, as in Kehillas Yaakov (by the author of Melo Haro’im), Erech Holada.
There are, of course, a number of "problems" with this assertion. Forget whether sources from Kabbalistic works = Chazal. Forget for a moment that "a drop exudes from the brain and develops into semen" is the NOT the exact equivalent of a pituitary gland having influence on the production of semen, such that this is a kvetch and a teretz rather than inspirational proof of Chazal's knowledge stemming from a Divine source.

How did they know? Well, how did Aristotle know?? How did the Pythagoreans know?? After all, all this could not be discovered by experimentation!

And yet, to cite Wikipedia, which in turn cites more reputable sources:
Additionally, "Aristotle tells us that the region round the eyes was the region of the head most fruitful of seed ("most seedy" σπερματικώτατος), pointing to generally recognised effects upon the eyes of sexual indulgence and to practices which imply that seed comes from liquid in the region of the eyes."[22] This may be explained by the belief of the Pythagoreans that "semen is a drop of the brain [τὸ δε σπέρμα εἶναι σταγόνα ἐγκέφαλου]."[23] 
This is also likely the source of the idea that Athena was born directly out of Zeus' brain.

Rabbi Feldman was presumably unaware that the Pythagoreans claimed that "semen is a drop of the brain". Otherwise, he surely would not have cited it as evidence of clear scientific truth, which must have stemmed from Hashem.

So what happened here? Chazal may have relied on ruach hakodesh, or sod Hashem liyreav, or tradition, or darshening pesukim, for some few select statements. But by and large, they relied on contemporary scientific knowledge. One example is that Rav studied for eighteen months under a shepherd to become an expert in eye diseases of animals, so as to be able to pasken in terms of bechorot. (See Sanhedrin 5b.) If the shepherd happened to teach Rav an incorrect fact, this would not reflect poorly on Rav. And given the limitations of the time, it would not even necessarily reflect poorly on the shepherd.

A rationalist, particularly one who has deliberately familiarized himself with some ancient Greek science, would recognize that this is simply Chazal (or perhaps, in this case, some medieval kabbalist), basing himself on ancient Greek science.

But if one assumes that every statement from Chazal, even scientific statements, stem from Hashem, Chazal must be infallible in science. And any error is embarrassing. If so, what does one do with an "absurd" statement like this?

There are a few possibilities. One can take a "pnimiyus" approach. And we would have to see the sources inside to see if it is applicable. Indeed, in this particular instance, it might well be, since after all, this is kabbalah, and, just as in ancient philosophy, the Intellect, the Masculine and Feminine, and impregnation have particular deep meanings.

One can instead adopt an apologetic approach, and search modern science for something, anything, which is approximately similar, and then claim that this is what Chazal surely meant. In this instance, the pituitary gland is located at base of the brain, and it secretes hormones, one of which regulates the production of semen. This is not the same as the semen itself coming from the brain, but we can simply claim that the people back then would not have understood Chazal, and so they cloaked their language. This is a kvetch, and a rather weak teretz.

But if you believe that Chazal were infallible in matters of science, then this is not apologetics! This is not weak and not forced. It is inspiring. I don't know whether this is used in kiruv seminars to inspire people, but I would not be surprised. And so, the weakness becomes a strength. And if this is a strength, then this is something to attack those who follow in the path laid out by Rabbi Avraham the son of the Rambam, for how could Chazal have known my kvetched interpretation which accords with modern science?

For a more recent example of this, in March of this year, Rabbi Natan Slifkin wrote about kidneys, as the seat of the intellect. A gemara states:
The Rabbis taught: The kidneys advise, the heart considers, the tongue articulates, the mouth finishes, the esophagus brings in all kinds of food, the windpipe gives sound, the lungs absorb all kinds of fluids, the liver causes anger, the gallbladder secretes a drop into it and calms it, the spleen laughs, the gizzard grinds, the stomach [causes] sleep, the nose [causes] wakefulness. (Berachos 61a)
One commenter wrote the following, but it was a common response:
A well-respected physician e-mailed me the following: "There are powerful hormones secreted by the adrenal glands (that are on the kidneys) - the corticosteroids and adrenalin, which undoubtedly have psychological impact." Furthermore, there is in fact a connection with cognition. The Journal Neurology ("the most widely read and highly cited peer-reviewed neurology journal" by the American Academy of Neurology) recently published an article called "The brain and the kidney connection: A model of accelerated vascular cognitive impairment" - see here: It's now clear that there is a connection between the brain and cognition. "Psychological impact" and general cognitive functioning can surely relate to the connection with our capacity to advise ourselves and others. Do a google scholar, or just a google search, with the words "kidneys cognition" and you'll see more on this topic.
However, having an impact on psychology; or having a negative impact on cognition is not the same as advising, and giving counsel. This is another instance of apologetics, which undoubtedly will eventually turn into evidence that Chazal were infallible in science, rather than the reverse. 


Anonymous said...

Follower says:
First of all, no one is saying that ALL of Chaza"l were infallible in ALL of science. (Actually, I take that back. There are, unfortunately, those among us who ascribe infallibility or near-infallibilty to Chaza"l and their successors throughout the ages, right down to today's g'dolim, including in scientific areas. While I very much revere today's g'dolim, and all the more so their predecessors, I cannot ascribe G-dliness to them. Only HaShem Yitbarach is truly infallible; everyone else, including the g'dolim who are the closest things on Earth to Him, has limits. To know everything, i.e. to be infallible, is to be the Ribono Shel Olam Himself, and since the g'dolim pray to Him and subserviate themselves to Him and His infinite wisdom, they would probably be shocked at how much their "followers" believe in them.) However, I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that their Torah knowledge does give them insight into things that they otherwise could not know. For example, it is a well-known fact that the Chazon Ish, zatza"l, never opened a medical textbook in his entire life, let alone attended medical school; yet world-renowned doctors consulted him on the biggest medical dilemas of the day for his advice. From what I've heard, there is even a well-known surgeon in Eretz Yisrael who is in posession of a diagram of a surgical procedure mapped out by the Chazon Ish himself, which has proven successful. Now tell me, how could the Chazon Ish (and others like kim throughout the ages) have such a profound grasp of medical knowledge when he never studied the material himself? For most people, the response would probably be to shrug their shoulders. However, their is a Talmudic dictum that states that he who occupies himself with Torah study merits many things. Commentators have said that this refers to knowledge that is seemingly "outside" of Torah (such as, for example, medicine). (I put "outside" in quotes because the Vilna Gaon states that EVERYTHING is included in the Torah. Most of us, however, don't have the means to discern it from Torah itself, so we make use of science and the like.) That is not to say that ALL wisdom is open to ALL g'dolim about ALL matters (otherwise why would people like Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twersky go to medical school?), but, again, we must acknowledge that some g'dolim do have some higher understandings on certain "non-Torah-related" subjects.
As far as the subject of this post, well...I'm not the one to answer any apparent contradictions, simply because my knowledge and scholarship in all of these areas leaves some to be desired.

Yeshivish said...

How do you know that the Chazon Ish never looked into a medical text book?

joshwaxman said...

Thanks for following.

I do leave open the possibility of some knowledge not derived from secular contemporary sources. however, this was in reply to Rabbi Aharon Feldman, who argued the opposite against Rabbi Slifkin, in the essay linked above.

In terms of the topic of the post, leave aside any terutzim which would answer "apparent" contradictions. The obvious facts of the matter is that, in this matter which is (or seems) at odds with modern science, the ancient Greek scientists said precisely the same thing. And so to say that Chazal and the Pythagoreans said precisely the same thing, but only Chazal meant the kvetch, and certainly did not rely on Greek science, is rather difficult to say.

In terms of the Chazon Ish, read this post on parshablog. Basically, Rav Gedaliah Nadel, one of the foremost talmidim of the Chazon Ish, told Rabbi Slifkin that the Chazon Ish's knowledge came from reading medical journals. The idea that he did not study secular science is false, and was made up by folks who wanted to bolster the idea of medical knowledge by rabbis via sod Hashem liyreav.

Kol Tuv,


Blog Widget by LinkWithin