Approaches to Chazal and implications for present day halacha
The brouhaha over R. Slifkin has revealed that most of the center-left(probably even moderate right) orthodoxy believe that the Tannaim and Amoraim in the Gemarah were not always right with regard to science. Once that opening is established the next question obviously becomes: is there anything else that they were not right about? The answer to this question obviously has profound implications for Halacha and Judaism as we know it today.
Scientific facts(as we know them) are facts because they are verified by repeated observation and validated by fitting a theory that not only explains the observations but predicts new findings that can also be verified by observations. That is the scientific method that we are familiar with. Seen in this context, we can establish a category of statements by Chazal that are in the realm of "natural science", ie biology, astronomy, agriculture, medicine, chemistry, physics, etc. We are also not surprised that statements made 2000 years ago regarding these topics reflect the scientific understanding of the day, and are frequently wrong, given what we know about these topics today.
Taking one step away from the purely "natural" sciences(those based on observation of nature or human BIOLOGICAL function), are the social sciences, those based on observations of human interactions. It is harder to prove or disprove contentions in this arena, because of the variability of human behavior. An observation that might apply to one person may not apply to a different person. A generalization about one society may not apply to a different society. Chazal made a number of statements regarding society and human behavior as well, and a number of them have become normative. Were they accurate in these assessments? or were they again somewhat reflecting the social attitudes of the times? One statement for example, that a woman would rather be married(implied that it is not an ideal marriage) than not married, has had significant impact on marriage law. Does this statement reflect Torah m'Sinai, or is it a turn of the era sociological observation? Similarly many statements, particularly regarding women and the place of women in society have obviously had significant impact on Halacha. R. Eliezer Berkovits(Jewish Women in Time and Torah) wrote that when these statements contradicted Torah directives and values, they can be put aside. (R. Shalom Carmy, in the most recent edition of Tradition, reviews one or R. Bekovits's books and rebuts this approach). However, the initial question is still valid and unaswered, are the social statements in the Gemara refective of society, or Torah m'Sinai?
If that wasn't a difficult enough problem, we now come to the legal statements of the Gemara. Are they entirely Torah m'Sinai, or do they too contain at least some element of the times? This outside influence could come in at least two ways: simply reflective of the general culture, and/or, specifically shaping statements to achieve a goal related to a certain contemporary situation. In other words, are there notes of general Greek/Roman law that crept into the Talmud? Did the Tannaim write, in some cases, not for the ages, but to shape practice in response to specific situation? Obviously, trying to unravel, if there is any unravelling to be done, one bit of law from another, or looking at the political/social situation and trying to identify an attitude or legal statement that was more to address that situation but not reflective of a tradition for the ages would be incredibly difficult and uncertain.
The final question is: what is Torah m'Sinai? What are the actions and beliefs that define Judaism? Can we go through the gemara, weed out what we think are outside influences, and go back to a 'pure' form of Judaism? is it possible? Leopold Lipman(Yom Tov) Zunz, one of the first to advocate the academic study of Judaism(who also put together clues and theorized the existance of pesikta d'rav kahanna, which was subsequently found- no lightweight) tried this approach and basically came out with Reform Judaism- discounting the Talmud in favor of prophetic Judaism.
Ordhodox Jews do not want to throw away the Talmud, and believe that at the very least the legal statements reflect the path that God wants us to be on. I have not addressed the issue of the path being right becuase it is the one we are on, or if it is intrinsically right(majority rule trumping heavenly voices and deeds). This has to be an item of belief, or at least acceptance. There is no way to "prove" the validity of the gemara. However, while accepting the legal decisions, it seems reasonable to be skeptical of the science when it contradicts what we know today, and following that rationale, to judiciously look at the social science carefully as well. The opposite views, either totally rejecting the gemara, or claiming its infallibility in all cases, to me are unacceptable. comments appreciated, as always