On the Longevity of the Ancient (and Pre-Modern) Interpretations of Medical Passages
Professor Eric Lawee’s fascinating article, spiced with historical intrigue, has revealed the secrets of the hidden manuscript Tzofenat Pane’ah of Eleazar Ashkenazi ben Nathan HaBavli that lay undiscovered all these centuries (“Eleazar Ashkenazi on the Longevity of the Ancients,” TRADITION 54:1). Inherent in his discussion lies yet another more profound revelation. Scientific research today is also revealing secrets that lay dormant, in our genetic code, unappreciated for centuries. What has compelled rationalists throughout the centuries, like Ashkenazi, to reinterpret the life spans chronicled for the antediluvian patriarchs in the Torah is the belief, based on the science and observed reality of their time, that extreme longevity was a biological impossibility. What if this is simply not factually true?
While strokes, heart attacks, cancers, and trauma are associated with many deaths each year, the major cause or contributing factor to death is the physiological process of aging. Delaying or reversing this process could prolong life, perhaps even indefinitely. The relatively new field of genetics and longevity research is continually revealing aspects of our genetic makeup that limit or restrict our life span. In theory, if we can remove these impediments, our life spans could be increased significantly. In a special issue of the medical journal eLife, titled “Aging, Geroscience and Longevity” (January 28, 2021), the editors remark, “Breakthroughs in aging-related research are revealing details of how cellular processes and tissue functions decline during aging and have pinpointed longevity factors conserved among eukaryotes. In parallel, investigations in model organisms are uncovering potential approaches to extend lifespan in humans.”
While Rambam felt comfortable invoking metaphor, parable, or allegory in other biblical passages, contrary to his fellow rationalists like Ashkenazi, he was resistant to apply this approach to the descriptions of extreme longevity. It now appears that there may be a scientific basis to his reticence. Whether a millennium-long existence is a desirable objective, or how this will impact social security notwithstanding, it raises an intriguing prospect about the relationship of Torah and science.1
There is a halakhic notion called nishtane ha-teva,2 often invoked to explain areas of conflict between scientific phenomenon as depicted in rabbinic literature and our modern medical or scientific understanding. According to its classic iteration, it means that an objective physiological or biological change has occurred in the human body since the time of the writing of the original Talmudic passage. As such, any attempts to interpolate modern medical understanding into a pre-modern passage are misguided. This notion needs to be applied judiciously. Touchstones for this discussion have included the Talmudic passages on the spontaneous generation of lice,3 as well as on the description of the functions of the organs of the body, in particular, “the kidney’s counsel.”4
Proponents of this approach, however, run the risk of ultimately becoming one of its examples. As a student of the relationship of medical history and rabbinic literature, I have repeatedly observed physicians and scientists, generation after generation, defending enigmatic scientific statements of Hazal or earlier rabbinic figures, based on the “latest advances” of their day. In some cases, their “latest advances” are ultimately, with the passage of time, revealed to be as inaccurate as the positions they think they are defending.5 I often wonder how these rabbinic authorities would view their earlier contributions if they were alive today. We must be continually mindful, however, that this last statement will be uttered about us one day as well.
The canon of medicine is continuing to evolve, and while it is true that more of our knowledge has moved from the age of the four humours to the objective realms of DNA and the like, there still remains a great deal of the unknown. Our interpretations of the medical passages of earlier rabbinic authorities today might be subject to the same accusations of inaccuracy as those of our predecessors. The application of the notion of nishtane ha-teva, and its evolution over time, merits fuller treatment. An apt (and ironic) title for a future dissertation might be “The Changing Nature of the Nshtane ha-Teva Phrase in Rabbinic Literature.”
Is this case of genetics and longevity an example of nishtane ha-teva? Not according to Professor Natan Aviezer. He explains why, though God declared after the flood that the years of man would be 120, it took some 500 years for this maximum lifespan limitation to take full effect, only beginning with the death of Moses. According to Aviezer: “The divine pronouncement of Bereishit 6:3 can be understood as meaning that in the time of Noah, the genes for aging were introduced into the human gene pool. It would of course take a number of generations for these ‘aging genes’ to propagate through the entire human population. This would explain why another 16 generations were to pass (from Noah until Moses) until the maximum life span finally became reduced to the divinely-decreed value of 120 years.”6 Is it possible that today’s scientists are only now beginning to identify the genes God introduced at the times of Noah? The next step is to remove or alter those genes to allow the human lifespan to return to that of our antediluvian ancestors. In the not-too-distant future, there may be a time when the phrase “you should live till 120” will be construed as a curse. “Only 120?!”
There is however an alternate interpretation of the expression nishtane ha-teva, to which Rabbi Moshe Tendler z”l gave voice. It is not that nature has innately changed with the passage of time; rather, our understanding of it has. This would surely be an appropriate application here.
I do not know if Rambam considered attributing the accounts of extreme longevity to hyperbole or metaphor, and held his quill suspended above the parchment for a few moments before finally inking his comments for posterity (or longevity, if you will), but I suspect that if he were alive today, there would be no hesitation. I am also confident that Rambam would not countenance my attributing to him the foreknowledge of current genetic discoveries. Even Eleazar Ashkenazi, along with other rationalists, would conceivably reevaluate his position in light of modern discoveries.
I leave you with an additional speculation to ponder. According to one interpretation of Rambam, in the Messianic age longevity beyond that common today will again be possible.7 Since, as is well known, Rambam maintains that no laws of nature will be abrogated during this time,8 presumably he means that greatly extended lifespans will come about through advances in research on the frontier of genetics and longevity, coupled with gene editing and manipulation. This could produce a return of extreme longevity accomplished without violating any laws of nature, thus representing the heralding of the Messianic age.
Rabbi Edward Reichman, M.D., is a Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.