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Sources and Methods

Throughout this volume, reference is made to diverse sources including, of course, a great number of published volumes from among the hundreds of books by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In general these are comprised of three categories:

Ma’amarim (Chassidic discourses) – Deep discussion of Chassidic concepts, which were said and published only on special occasions, in the syntax and manner of Chassidic philosophy. There are six volumes of Sefer HaMa’amarim Melukat, which include only those discourses that were later personally edited by the Rebbe. In ma’amarim, mundane matters are discussed as they relate to spiritually and G‑dliness. At these highly abstract levels, the Rebbe’s ma’amarim (edited and unedited) address the most fundamental issues, also pertinent to science, including the nature of existence, matter and energy, light and darkness, being and nothingness, the purpose of life, soul and body, the metaphysical infrastructure of the cosmos, fate and free choice, and the significance of man on the cosmic stage. While all of these issues are integral to the philosophy of science and of deep relevance to even actual practice in a number of scientific fields, i.e., quantum physics, cosmology, and psychobiology ~ nonetheless, the Rebbe’s ma’amarim are not referenced here and will require a separate study to explore.

Sichot (Talks) – Chassidic teachings that were said at every Chassidic gathering, known as Farbrengens. In these talks, the Rebbe deals with a broad spectrum of issues — relating to Torah or to the Jewish nation, to the world or to the individual. He also shared his thoughts regarding various current events. These talks are extant in one of the following two forms:

TranscriptsThe Rebbe spoke for many hours at a time, about many different topics. When delivered on weekdays, the talks were recorded and later transcribed. When delivered on Shabbat or Festivals, when writing and recording are both forbidden by Jewish law, a special staff of “reviewers,” headed by Rabbi Yoel Kahn, would gather immediately after the Farbrengen and reconstruct the Sichot and Ma’amarim from memory. Most of these Sichot were not edited by the Rebbe, and are called Hanachot.

From 1981 on, there were two separate staffs working concurrently on reconstructing, transcribing, and publishing the Rebbe’s talks: Hanachot HaTemimim in Yiddish (the language spoken by the Rebbe), and Hanachot BeLahak (Lashon HaKodesh) in Hebrew. Some earlier talks were only preserved in personal transcripts, written by one of the reviewers or other Chassidim for his own records. This is called a Hanacha Pratit, a private transcript. Care is taken to note on those Sichot not reviewed by the Rebbe that they are unedited. These talks are collected in the Sichot Kodesh series (1950-1981), which includes 50 large volumes of hundreds of pages each in Yiddish, and the Hitvaduyot series (1982-1992), forty volumes of hundreds of pages each in Hebrew.

Edited Talks – There are 39 volumes in the Likutei Sichot series. Each includes several different talks on each Torah portion that were fully reviewed and edited by the Rebbe. Some of the volumes are in Yiddish, while others are in Hebrew. Besides talks on the weekly Torah portions, there are also essays on Jewish holidays, as well as about the special days in the Chabad calendar.

Michtavim (Letters) – Some of them are to individual people, with blessings, advice, responses to questions about Torah or any other topic, etc. Others are pastoral; some to “all Jewish men and women, wherever they may be” (usually before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach), some to Chabad Chassidim, and others to various Jewish, and even non-Jewish, groups.

Many of the Rebbe’s letters were first published as additions to the Likutei Sichot series. In most volumes, there are letters from the Rebbe relating to the Torah portions dealt with, the holidays, and other issues related to them. For instance, letters about prayer are printed as an appendix to the Torah portion, Ekev, education to Chanukah, dietary laws to Shemini or Re’eh, etc.

There is also a set of the letters themselves, accompanied by indices and footnotes, published by Kehot Publication Society. In this set of Igrot Kodesh there are, to date, 27 volumes. That covers the Rebbe’s letters up to 1971. Then there are a variety of collections of the Rebbe’s English Letters, published in some 10 or more books, plus hundreds of magazines and other periodicals. One essay, on the spiritual significance of Pascal’s Law of fluid pressure, has been abstracted from the Rebbe’s private notebooks, collectively called Reshimot.

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Torah: Literal or Literary

The Rebbe’s Approach

In the Rebbe’s works we find a repeated emphasis on the statement of our Sages, “A verse never leaves its literal meaning.” The Rebbe consistently demonstrates how the diversity of Torah interpretations, be they allegorical, homiletical, philosophical or kabbalistic, are all consistent with and alluded to within the pshat, the straightforward meaning of the verse. Moreover, as a general rule, we are to consider even the statements of our Sages as literal and exact.

The Rebbe’s approach to explaining Rashi’s commentaries on the Torah is original. He does so in accordance with Rashi’s self-stated objective: “I am here only to explain the simple meaning of the text.” Accordingly, there can be nothing in Rashi — neither a Midrash nor an interpretation, etc. — which is superfluous to the most basic meaning of the text itself, as it should be understood by a “five-year-old studying the Torah.”1

And yet, as the Rebbe constantly demonstrates, within Rashi’s commentaries, there are countless allusions to deeper meanings and kabbalistic insights, virtually invisible to the untrained eye.

The same is true of the Rebbe’s reading of Maimonides, the Rambam: Although he is well cognizant of the fact that in the Rambam’s philosophical works there can be various levels of interpretation and hints, etc., the Rebbe explains the halachic works of the Rambam first and foremost in their most literal sense. This is in accordance with the Rambam’s own description of his great halachic work in its introduction: “So that all of the laws will be open and revealed, to both small and great.”2

This consistent-with-the-literal approach resonates throughout the Rebbe’s words, especially in all that relates to the relationship between Torah and science.3 Moreover this approach is integral to Chassidic principles regarding the relationship between Creator and creation, as well as between Torah and the world. Accordingly, information about nature contained within Torah is an inseparable portion of Torah itself, given to us by G‑d. Accordingly one cannot simplistically assume that Torah views on nature are subject to change as are scientific views that are predicated solely on sensory observations and causal reasoning.

Another implication of this approach is that there cannot be any true conflict between Torah and science. Any apparent contradictions should be resolvable by proper study of the two disciplines. This is because “istakel b’orayta u’vara alma,”4G‑d looked into the Torah and created the world, i.e., Torah is the blueprint of creation.

All of this has radical implications for the apologetic style of virtually all of the Torah-and-science literature to date (as we shall see in Chapter 4 on Apologetics). It is therefore especially important to make sure that the Torah basis of this view is properly established in the context of Rabbinic Judaism. At this point we shall bring evidence of the necessity to adhere to a literal understanding of both the written and oral Torah:

The Written Torah

Rav Sa’adya Gaon writes in his book Emunot VeDe’ot5 that one cannot remove a verse in the Torah from its literal meaning,6 except in the following four cases:

a) When our senses tell us that it is not meant literally, i.e. “For she (Eve) was the mother of all life.”7 It is obvious that the animals are not descended from Eve. It is therefore clear that the intent of “mother of all life” is only human beings.

b) When our intellect disallows the simple interpretation, i.e. “For the L_rd your G‑d is a consuming fire.”8 Obviously, G‑d’s essence is not actually a fire, since fire constantly undergoes changes, fire can be lit and extinguished, etc. We therefore have no choice but to explain the verse as a reference to G‑d’s revenge or vengeance burning and consuming like a fire.

c) When a clear verse elsewhere contradicts the literal translation, i.e. the commandment “Do not test the L_rd your G‑d.”9 In the Prophets we are told, “test Me please on this.”10 Since they are both true and both were given by the same G‑d, we must find a way to bridge the difference. One way of resolving the contradiction is by saying that the test is not one of G‑d and His abilities but rather solely a test of the person himself — by behaving in the manner suggested by the prophet, he will soon find out if he merits G‑d’s blessings.11

d) When we have a clear tradition telling us not to understand the words literally, i.e. the punishment of lashes, where the Torah tells us “forty shall he be smitten,”12 but the Sages received a tradition traced directly all the way back to Moses at Sinai that the intent is to the number which is completed by forty, i.e. thirty-nine.

Rabbi Sa’adya Gaon concludes: “There are these four, and there is no fifth.”

He writes further13 that if we were to freely translate the verses non-literally, we would not be left with any commandments which we fulfill simply out of subservience to G‑d and adherence to his word,14 for all such commandments can be explained away as allegorical. By way of illustration:

“Do not kindle a fire in all of your dwellings on the Shabbat day15” can be explained away as: On Shabbat, avoid war, which is compared to fire in Scripture.16

“Do not eat chametz (leaven)17”: Avoid even the slightest contact with immorality, which is compared to leaven in Hoshea.18

“Do not take the mother with her offspring:”19 Do not kill out complete families in war.

Similarly, even the most famous miracles related in the Torah could be explained away. One could claim that “the splitting of the Red Sea” is a reference to Jews passing safely through the Egyptian armies, for the Gentile nations are referred to in the Torah20 as “a raging river” and “many waters.”

These are the words of Rav Sa’adya Gaon.21

The Oral Torah

This statement of literal intent with regard to the Torah applies as well to the statements made by our Sages: First and foremost, they must be understood in the literal sense. However, just as in the Scriptures there are some parts that were written in the first place as a parable and allegory, such as the Song of Songs and the book of Proverbs — where the simple meaning is non-literal, as opposed to the simple meaning of other texts — so, too, there are some Aggados said by the Sages which were in the first place said as parables.22

There is a famous rule in the study of Talmud that since the Oral Law is intended as an elucidation and application of the Written Law, the Mishna’s syntax must be even clearer and more direct than that of Scripture itself. This, despite the fact that even the Mishna is extremely concise, to the point that the Gemarah must often add several words which were understood to be implied, in order for us to comprehend the Mishna.

This rule applies even more so to the words and statements of the Talmud/Gemara, since its purpose is to further expand on and discuss the words of the Mishna and its sources: “An amora (sage of the Gemara) is required to fully explain his words.”23 As a result, it is very difficult to say about any statement in the Mishna, and to an even greater degree any statement in the Talmud, that it is not meant literally. The same is true, to a progressively greater degree, about the words of the Sages in all of the generations since.

It is obvious that we must be very careful about trying to explain statements away as being non-literal. It is completely out of the question to say so about anything that was presented as a Halachic ruling, even if the Halachic ruling does deal with beliefs or opinions. For instance: Maimonides dedicated the last two chapters of his book24 to the topic of the Redemption and Moshiach. Amongst other statements, he rules that certain verses — such as the famous “the wolf shall lie with the lamb”25 — are allegorical. [This is talking about the beginning of the Messianic era, before the Resurrection of the Dead.] It is therefore clear that everything else that he had discussed in these chapters — most of which are not “natural” by our standards — are not allegories, but rather meant literally.


“‘Pharaoh was one cubit tall, and his beard was one cubit….26’ This statement cries out: “Explain me!” However, we may not, Heaven forbid, say that this wasn’t the way things were in a literal sense. The verses of Torah and the statements of our Sages can never be removed from their literal meaning. All I will do is explain hints and reasons why G‑d created him in such a form and shape….”

(Shelah, Torah SheBichtav, Parshat Va’era.)

“The general rule: All the words of Scripture and the Sages are true and reliable in their literal meaning as well as in their more exegetical and esoteric senses, except for a very few instances where statements are made allegorically, as enumerated in the thirty-two methods of expounding the Torah by Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yossi HaGelili27:

“Mashal (parable), for instance: ‘The trees went to anoint a king.28’ That is merely a metaphor for the Jewish people, who appointed Atniel, Devorah, and Gideon, as rulers upon themselves.”

Says the Maharik: Only in the case of prophecy, can one say that the Torah’s words are intended as a metaphor. When dealing with the Torah and its Mitzvot, however, one may not expound them as being parables, except for the three instances stated by Rabbi Yishmael….”

(Shelah, Torah SheBa’al Peh, Kelal Drushim VeAggadot.)

The Zohar

In his famous legal ruling about the kashrut of a chicken that was found not to have a heart, the Chacham Tzvi writes:

“…This that you wish to explain the clear words of the Zohar as being merely allegories and metaphors, we have been instructed by our holy fathers and teachers that one may not remove any words of Torah from their literal meaning, even the words of the Written Torah which are sealed and locked. Our Sages said, ‘A verse never departs from its simple meaning.’ How angered was the father of Israel, the Rashba of blessed memory, in his responsa,29 by those who would explain the verses as being non-literal. Anger came out from before him, to destroy them to the last (i.e., he excommunicated them).

“This is true not just of Mitzvot and the foundations of Torah alone, but of all aspects of the Torah, for there is no differentiating between them. This is the basis of the entire Torah and all of the prophets. The only exception is where our senses tell us, or there are clear signs to overturn the simple meaning, or where the verses contradict each other, as written by Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon….

“Therefore, in our case where none of those four exceptions apply — On the contrary! All four of them together agree with the simple meaning of the text — it is out of the question to interpret the Zohar’s words non-literally. When the Zohar discusses the highest realms, its words are sometimes locked with a thousand locks (i.e. not understood by us), but in all other areas, its words are literal, just like all the rest of the Talmud and the statements of the Sages. This is obvious….”

(Sha’alot U’Teshuvot Chacham Tzvi, 77, s.v. gam. Benei Berak 1970, p. 87.)

From all the above, we see that regardless of other levels of interpretation, normative, rabbinic Judaism requires us to accept the pshat, or straightforward meaning of scriptural verses and rabbinic writings, except under very specific and defined circumstances. It is not uncommon for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to enhance this concept by analyzing and resolving a diversity of issues in Torah interpretation using a careful and detailed analysis of the pshat.

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Evaluating Torah/Scinece Conflicts

“Anyone who follows the developments in the secular scientific world in recent generations will notice that the conclusions of secular science are progressively converging to the conclusions of our Torah.”

(Igrot Kodesh, vol. 16, p. 26.)

We will now cite rabbinic sources regarding Torah/science conflicts and the basis of our Sages’ knowledge of natural phenomena.

“…There were some of the great ones who thought to deviate slightly from the words of the Sages, to one side or another. This resulted from the fact that these people were learned in the sciences and of broad minds, and they thought that our Sages were similarly merely wise people. They felt that they also built their conclusions on wisdom and knowledge, even if they were somewhat more intelligent than us!

They should have recognized the fact that our Sages possessed the Divine spirit, and Elijah the prophet often appeared to them. Their souls were from a very lofty and pure place. There is no comparison between later scholars and the Sages. We must bow our heads, and accept the truth from the bearers of truth…”

(Chida, Shem HaGedolim, Ma’arechet Sefarim, e82.)

Seeming Contradictions in Halachic Issues

In a long and reasoned response,30 the Rashba deals with the seeming contradiction between the Sages’ statement that an animal possessing an extra leg is a tereifa which cannot survive for twelve months (for any limb that is added is considered as if the animal were missing one), versus the opinion of the experts of his time whose experience showed that such an animal could live as long as any healthy animal:

“…If you have seen anyone being lenient with regards to animals with an extra limb, or any other of the animals that our Sages listed as dying, do not listen to him, do not accept him — may this not happen amongst Israel. I feel that anyone who allows such a case is mocking the words of the Sages. I am writing to you about this at length so that my words may be considered by you, and by all those who fear G‑d’s words, as a fence of stone. The holy words of our Sages should not become to you like a trampled fence, that has been breached and shattered throughout…”

The Rashba then proves from the Talmud’s discussion in Chullin that the statements made in this regard are said as certain fact, without exception. Therefore, if one claims that experience has shown differently, there is something wrong either with his observations or with his method of experimentation. He then attempts to explain the halachic principle in a way that will not contradict the results of the experiments, by raising the possibility that the Torah only declares an animal with an extra limb to have the same legal classification as one missing a limb which will die within twelve months. It does not mean to say that the realities of the situation are exactly the same. He then concludes:

“And if someone will strengthen himself with his mistakes, and declare: ‘No! I love these foreign ideas, and I will follow them,’ we tell him: To mock or denigrate the words of the Sages will not pass. Those declarants will be lost, and a thousand like them, but not even one word will be subtracted from all that was agreed upon by the holy Sages of Israel, the prophets and the descendants of prophets, and the words that Moses was told at Sinai.

“At the end of the day, we will be better served to seek ways of upholding the truth of the Sages’ teachings, rather than pushing away their holy and true teachings and upholding the empty words of these denigrators…”

Rabbi Yitzchak bar Sheses, Rabbi of Algiers at the end of the fourteenth century, writes about a similar situation31: “We shouldn’t judge the laws of our Torah and its Mitzvot based on the scholars of nature and medicine, for if we believe them, we would believe that the Torah is not from Heaven, Heaven forbid, for that is what they have concluded with their false experiments. If you base your approach to the laws of tereifot (unfit animals) on their conclusions, surely you will be amply rewarded by the butchers, for most animals will thus be switched from live to dying and vice versa. We should not believe the Greek and Ishmaelite scholars, who speak only based on their own theories and some alleged experience, without paying attention to the many flaws in their experiments. The Sages dealt with the whole issue already in the Talmud,32 and concluded: “I am bringing proof from the Torah, and you bring evidence from fools!?”

Rabbinic Prohibitions for Natural Reasons

In the Halachic encyclopedia Sedei Chemed (by Rabbi Chizkia Medini, Rabbi of Chevron at the beginning of the twentieth century), there is a section called Kuntres Metzitzah. It is a collection of the various opinions regarding the requirement for the mohel to suck out a little bit of blood from the circumcision wound. The reason for this requirement was stated clearly to be for natural reasons rather than halachic — to protect the baby from danger. Some people wanted to annul this requirement, since according to modern medicine there is no need for it. In this case, too, the leading authorities held to the principle that our Sages’ knowledge about natural phenomena did not derive from their contemporaries’ research, but rather was transmitted all the way from Moses at Sinai.

Further along he quotes the Maharam Shik’s statement33 that one may not say regarding anything that has been transmitted as a halacha from Moses at Sinai that the situation has changed. In other words, either the facts in all such situations are immutable and eternal, or the halacha is truly not dependent upon those aspects of the situation which are subject to change.

The same is true of those actions which the Sages prohibited because of a danger, or that they required us to do to avoid a danger (such as the afore-mentioned metzitzah): Since Jewish law proclaims that we do not follow the majority in questions of life and death, and all of experiential and experimental science is based on percentages and majorities, it is obvious that we cannot rely on such research to proclaim nature to have changed. Rather, we have no choice but to continue acting in the same manner, based on the assumption and the possibility that things may truly not have changed at all. Only in those specific instances, where halacha itself proclaims the reality to have changed, may we be certain that the law in question was neither a tradition received from Moses at Sinai, nor was it ever a question of danger to life.

Torah Sages vs. Secular Scholars

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya represented the Jewish people in debates held in front of the Roman Caesars. During one of his debates with the Greek scholars — “the elders of Athens” — they argued about scientific issues, such as the length of the gestation periods of various creatures.34 They drew their opinions from “experimental research,” while his was derived from a kal v’chomer35 or a fortiori argument based on a verse in the Torah. Yet, R’ Yehoshua stood his ground, and did not consider their research sufficient grounds for him to back down from his proof from the Torah. He did not declare (as many in the past and present have) that the Torah’s statement is not the consensus, or that it is only an allegory. This, despite the fact that the statement at hand was derived through a kal v’chomer — a form of exposition that is logic-based rather than being received through tradition.

On the other hand, in tractate Pesachim36 we are told of an argument between the Jewish sages and the secular scholars regarding a point in astronomy: “The Jewish sages said, the sphere is set and the constellations orbit, and the secular scholars said the sphere orbits and the constellations are set… Rebbi said: Their argument is stronger than ours.” To paraphrase this debate: According to the Sages of Israel, the “sphere” in which the constellations are set does not move. It is stationary in the sky; the constellations within it are the entities that continually move. The secular scholars, on the other hand, were of the opinion that the constellations themselves are set in place. It is the entire sphere, that moves in space, thus moving all of the constellations along with it.

The Gaonim whose views are collected in Otzar HaGaonim accepted Rebbi’s statement literally. When they were asked whose opinion the ruling follows, they responded37: “This is not a legal matter, nor is it an issue of permitted or forbidden. Thus, there is no need to establish a ruling. However, it would seem that in this issue we follow the opinion of the non-Jewish scholars.” The Rambam, in Moreh Nevuchim, says likewise.38

However, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, in his Gilyon HaShas, notes a dissenting opinion offered by the Shitah Mekubetzet39: “I have heard in the name of Rabeinu Tam who said that although the non-Jewish scholars were victorious over the Jewish sages, that means only that they beat them with their arguments. The truth, however, is as the Jewish sages said, as we say in our prayers, ‘who opens the windows of heaven.’” This tack is followed as well by the Ramah in several of his works.40

The Rambam’s Rulings and his Sources

Maimonides, in his halachic work Yad HaChazakah, provides the scientific and other knowledge required to understand halachic topics and to fulfill the Mitzvot properly.41 In this context, he brings as halachic ruling some information that seemingly has its source in Greek wisdom, rather than in the words of our Sages.

One might ask: The Rambam knew that science continually changes. In fact, he noted some of the changes that had taken place between the time of the Talmud and his day (which is why in chapter 4 of De’ot he rules differently than they did regarding the healthiest modes of behavior, because “nature has changed”). He also knew that research continues to develop from generation to generation. Why then would he issue rulings applicable to all ages when their very source is uncertain and temporary? (He could have provided a disclaimer, as he did at the end of the aforementioned chapter, that these rulings are only applicable to certain circumstances, and may undergo changes.)

Indeed, when quoting astronomical statements whose source is in Greek wisdom, the Rambam was not embarrassed to mention them by name, with the proper disclaimer,42 i.e:

“…The reasoning behind all of these calculations… and the proof to each of these facts… is the wisdom of astronomy and mathematics about which the Greek scholars compiled many books. These are the books that we now have. The books compiled by the Jewish sages, on the other hand…did not reach us.

“Since all of these statements are accompanied by clear proofs that are free of falsity, and there is no room for debate at all, there is no need to worry about who the author was, whether it was authored by a prophet or by a non-Jew. For whenever something has a revealed reason, and we can ascertain its veracity with logical proofs, we do not rely on the person who said it or taught it, but rather on the proofs that have been revealed, and on the reason that has become known.”

We must therefore conclude that whenever the Rambam proclaimed in his rulings scientific facts or explanations of natural phenomena and did not clearly proclaim their source to be from foreign works — especially when dealing with issues of faith or the creation of the world, such as in the first four chapters of Yesodei HaTorah, which have similarities in Greek works — there must be a source for every one of these statements in the words of our Sages. This corresponds also with the well-known rule about the halachic authorities, which is especially true in the works of the Rambam, that “they do not write anything in their books which is not clear from the Talmud,” and whatever novella they have themselves come up with they write “it would seem to me…” or the like.43

Since the source of these statements as well is from the Torah itself, and it does not say anywhere that they are open to change, they are as relevant today as they were in his time.44