I have great respect for many of our sages of blessed memory, but there seems to be a tendency among Jews to refuse to admit the possibility that they could have ever made mistakes. I have been grappling with this question as I was trying unsuccessfully to write an answer to a this recent question. It is extremely hard to speak of the fallibility of our sages in a socially acceptable way.

One way to see this is to look at some of the reasoning on why we no longer follow Talmudic medicine. You often find something along the lines of the reasons given by the Maharil, that the descriptions are unclear, that we cannot understand what they mean, that if we tried it and did it wrong one might come to belittle the sages.

I almost never see an orthodox rabbi say: they were men who worked with the knowledge that was available at the time. They tried to apply Jewish principles to the world as they understood it, but they may have been mistaken in specific facts about the world.

The notion that any human could be infallible bothers me. I would gladly agree that Chazal were righteous, intelligent people with much integrity. I would also agree that is not good for people like us who have lesser moral qualities to criticize those who are greater than us, but does this mean that it is wrong to make respectful observations that such-and-such person was wrong about one particular issue that we can now understand in a completely different way? So they didn't know anything about germ theory or which creatures were real and which were mythical. Why is that so bad to say? Why do we tie ourselves in knots to avoid saying that they could be wrong occasionally?


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The book Torah Chazal And Science by R. Dr. Moshe Meiselman goes through the topic at great length (e.g. p. 33-4). His main thesis is that the primary approach of Jewish authorities through the ages has been to treat all undisputed statements of Chazal as correct. He asserts that they assumed that just like in the halachic arena in which Chazal were clearly fallible as evidenced by their many disputes and the proofs brought against them, their conclusion is assumed to be correct and binding, so too in other matters although we know that they were fallible, we assume that their conclusions reflect truth. He cites several examples of this and manages to present almost every statement to the contrary in Geonim or Rishonim as being somehow limited to the matter at hand. Besides asserting that this approach is the traditional one, he asserts that as such this constitutes our Mesorah from which we will only deviate with absolutely indisputable evidence. see also here where this opinion is discussed (albeit in a sometimes acerbic tone).


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