“New generations are inferior to older ones” – this is a common idea in Judaism, somewhat reversing the known facts of human and cultural development. According to this idea, the ancient sages are said to be “closer to God” in spiritual power, so they surely know better, and what they say must be correct.
Thus, a major part of Talmudic debates deals with interpreting the words of more ancient sages by later sages. Needless to say, along with the development of Judaism those sages became ancient themselves, associated with their own greatness and divinity, and therefore interpreted by even-later sages, and so forth.
Talmudic mindset (and in many ways also today’s strict Orthodox Judaism’s mindset) examines the world through the lens of ancient texts. If the ancient sages said something in the past, it is presumably the absolute truth. If something is written in the Torah, it is definitely and indisputably true. The last priority tool for understanding reality is… the reality itself. Hence, if some ancient text appears to be empirically wrong, the reasons should be looked for elsewhere, and reality should be bent in order to grant the text truthfulness.
In this way, a whole virtual world is built – a huge house of cards, based on “the words of the sages”, totally rejecting everything that might contradict them. The amount of “halachic” debates (Jewish religious debates) dealing with settling the differences between that world and the real world – is almost incomprehensible: An ocean of deep discussions analyzing every word and letter. Some of these discussions are evidently fascinating, but frequently unrealistic and irrelevant. Who cares about the students of Rabbi Ishmael, who cooked a whore punished with death, for the purpose of counting her organs, in order to justify Rabbi Akiva’s words? And when the counting went wrong, they concluded some organ dissolved during cooking…
“A tale of Rabbi Ishmael’s students who cooked a whore punished with death,
counted and found in her two hundred and fifty two organs”
The tractate of ‘Bechoros’ page 45a
Alas, some of these imaginary world’s discussions affect practical aspects of our modern life – courtesy of Israeli politics – and we suffer their conclusions, whether about humiliating ceremonies releasing a widow from marrying her brother in law, verdicts concerning killing of “gentiles”, organ transplants, wedding ceremonies, public transportation, you name it. Here too, the alleged absolute justness of Rabbis from an era of protein ignorance – largely affects today’s food on Israeli plates.
The examples of bending reality in order to match it with text, or twisting the words of X in order to match them with the words of Y, are many and dominant within the Talmudic talk. Some of them are quite amusing, as they have very little to do with real modern life, but still gravely discussed in the many “Yeshivas” (Jewish religious learning institutions) financed by the Israeli tax payer, and titled “religious education” (often actually titled “education” altogether). How come Rabbi Huna says that during the Sabbath one should wipe his ass with a stone, when an earlier rabbi determined this should be done with a piece of clay? You see, they both must be right! So let’s settle the contradiction: The earlier rabbi referred only to a piece of clay from the smooth edge of a jar, and since these are difficult to come by, hence ‘stone’ (The tractate of ‘Shabbos’ page 82a). Thus everything works out fine and all the great sages speak the truth. The fact that toilet paper has long been invented is purely irrelevant to the debate, which precedes any other core studies as well as serving in the Israeli army.
A “Sukkah” is the traditional hut constructed during the Jewish festival of ‘Sukkoth’. If Rabbi X said that the Sukkah should be covered only with the traditional four plants of the festival, but Rabbi Y said it could be covered by pieces of cedar, we will carry out a “scientific experiment” without leaving our desk, and reach the obvious conclusion: The myrtle plant is cedar, as we know there are many species of cedar (and even better if this “know” is backed up by some more-or-less suitable quotation).
“What is a cedar? Myrtle!”
The tractate of ‘Sukkah’ page 37a
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, also known as Moses Maimonides) who lived in the 12th century is worth mentioning in this context. His own scientific inclination produced saying such as: “But all that can be clarified so that it matches proven reality is better and more correct” (‘Moreh Nevuchim’ – ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’, Part 3 Chapter 14). Attempting to raise this line of thought in a contemporary religious argument typically yields responses such as “This is beyond us” or similar evading replies.