What happens when Torah and science collide?
This week’s Torah reading, consisting of two portions that have much to do with medical conditions, raises the above question. A serious study of the parshiyot requires us to look at both traditional Jewish commentaries and current scientific knowledge. And those two lenses don’t always combine to produce a coherent picture.
Since Parshat Tazria’ deals with childbirth, let’s grapple with the following interpretation of the female reproductive system presented in a collection of medieval commentators to the Torah known as Da’at Zekenim Miba’alei haTosafot:
“And some say it is found in the Book of Nature that the womb of a woman has seven chambers–three on the right, three on the left, and one in the center. If the seed enters the right chambers, she will beget a male child; if it enters the left chambers, she will beget a female child; and if it enters the center chamber, it will result in the birth of a tumtum or androgenus (children of either indeterminate or no signs of gender).”
Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman teaches emergency medicine, as well as the philosophy and history of medicine, at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also has rabbinic ordination from YU, and lectures extensively on the interface of Torah and science. He notes that the above commentary doesn’t purport to be of rabbinic origin; rather, it cites contemporary medical literature. Written hundreds of years before human dissection gave us a clear picture of the nature of the human body, it was as current as it could be. But seen now, it reflects the term “medieval” in its most pejorative sense–outdated and irrelevant. Its diagram of the uterus looks nothing like ours today.
So what do we do with earlier rabbinic attempts to explain the world they knew? Are they “antiquated relics of the past,” best to be ignored? Or, since they are the words of the Rabbis, is it our duty to defend their correctness? Feel free to discuss!
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise