Rabbi Nosson Scherman begins his commentary in the Stone edition of the Tanach with the words: "We begin the study of the Torah with the realization that the Torah is not a history book, but the charter of Man's mission in the universe." In other words, Rabbi Scherman, one of the more prolific authors of the "official" publisher of the right-wing Chareidi world states, even before he comments on the first verse in B'raishis, that the Torah is not a history text and, therefore, should not be viewed as one. Events are not recorded 100% literally and metaphors and other literary devices are employed.
It would seem, however, that many people are mediayek (exacting) about Rabbi Scherman's words. After all, he states that the Torah is not a history book, but doesn't state anything about math, science or other disciplines. It seems that they believe that the Torah *is* a science book and that any scientific theory that contradicts what is stated in the Torah (as they define it -- we'll address that shortly) must be ipso facto false and therefore discarded. Therefore, you have many Jews today who believe that the sun orbits the earth, that lice grow spontaneously and that there are a race of half-earth, half flesh mice running around.
The reason that they believe these things is because they believe that the Torah She B'al Peh (the Oral Torah) taught these things. The rulings of the Oral Torah became codified in the Talmud about two millenia after the Revelation at Mt. Sinai.
However, like any oral tradition that is passed down from one generation to the next, mistakes and uncertainty began to creep into it. In fact, according to the Midrash, it began shortly after the passing of Moshe, where, in the thirty days after his passing, three hundred halachos (laws) were forgotten. It's obvious that these laws were from the Oral Tradition (after all, they had the written Torah right in front of them -- they could hardly forget it). It is true that the midrash states that they were restored, but there really is no guarantee that the "restored" version was the original.
The truth of the matter can easily be seen by opening up any page of the Talmud. On the pages, there are disputes back and forth as to what the halacha should be in any given situation. The arguments don't only cover situations that didn't exist at the time of Mt. Sinai, but also cover situations that did occur, as well as historical fact. Even the very date of the Revelation itself couldn't be stated with 100% accuracy, as there was a dispute as to whether it happened on the sixth day of Sivan or the seventh.
In reality, it is inevitable that any oral tradition will have divergencies as time goes on. Look at it this way: if, over the centuries there are divergencies in written texts (the Torah has several divergent texts that have developed over the centuries) where one can always resovle disputes by looking at a pre-existing version, then certainly in an oral tradition, it is ludicrous to state that it survived intact over the millenia.
In reality, the Oral Torah adapted to the times around it and many facts that weren't present at Sinai became a part of the Oral Torah. Whereas the Original Oral Torah may have "read" something like the Rambam's Mishneh Torah or the Shulchan Aruch (highly organized, giving laws for various situations), it evolved to the point where it contained not only the laws (as they were remembered by later generations) but also the histories, sciences, medicines and folk-wisdoms of the day. But these additions were *not* a part of the Original Oral Torah that was given at Mt. Sinai. I don't believe, for example, that Moshe was taught that in order to see Shaidim (harmful spiritual beings - demons?) one must follow the remedy mentioned in Berachos. It was simply a part of the folk-wisdom of the day that became "tied up" with the Torah. The same applies to many of the scientific statements and medicinal remedies that appear in the Talmud.
Of course, there are those who take a different view on the matter. They take the simple view that "if it's in the Gemara, it must be true." End of story. But the fact of the matter is that texts and traditions do not exist in a vacuum. (Indeed, a recent reader made that point to me regarding my recent criticisms of R. Nachman, which I intend to address in a future post.) In order to believe that the scientific statements in the Talmud are all 100% accurate because they were given on Mt. Sinai requires one to believe in several counter-factual theories: (a) that God gave all of science to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, when there is really no evidence of that and (b) that the transmission of these facts passed reliably from father to son (or teacher to student) without change or deviation through the millenia - a highly unlikely scenario given the comparison that I made to written texts above.
In addition to that, you'd have to posit that the people in the chain of transmission either (a) passed along the scientific information but did not understand it or (b) understood it, but chose not to use it. After all, one can rightly ask where the light bulbs were in the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbadisa. Wouldn't they have been able to learn much more Torah if they could learn at night as well? Where were the printing presses? Books, in those days, were highly expensive and rare simply because they had to be hand-written. We take for granted the fact that millions of copies of the Tanach and Talmud exist today, but until six hundred years ago, that wasn't the case. The average Orthodox home in Brooklyn, New York today contains more printed Torah material than most towns had until the invention and popularization of the printing press. Certainly Torah could have spread more widely if there were printing presses! But the fact that these (and other) inventions did not exist at the time of Chazal make us choose one of the following three possibilities: the two mentioned above or (c) they simply did not have the knowledge. Choice (a) is highly illogical - why spend time and energy preserving knowledge that you can't understand or use and (b) makes little sense either - the Jews in ancient times could certainly have benefited from the advances in medicine, travel, food, etc. that we take for granted today.
In addition, if one is to believe one of the above two theories, one must ask at what point was this scientific knowledge lost? Who "dropped the ball" (so to speak)? Or do the chachamim of today still possess this knowledge but are keeping it from the general public?
That leaves option (c), that the science in the Talmud is the science of the day. And, of course, this can be proven to be true. It is obvious from statements made on Pesachim 94, for example, that the Amoraim had no notion of how the seasons work. Had they known that in the Southern Hemisphere the season is the opposite of the season they currently had, they would not have made the statements regarding how the land and springs are hot or cold because of the position of the sun. Likewise, of course, we know that the sun does not go through "windows" to illuminate the earth since half the earth is illuminated by the sun at all times. Take a look at the famous Blue Marble photo taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on the way to the moon. As one can see, there is no sphere "above" the earth with "windows" for the sun to exit and enter from. Day and night are caused by the rotation of the planet, not by the "travels" of the sun across the sky.
The odd thing, of course, is that this seems to be accepted even in the most Chareidi circles today. I don't know of anyone who thinks that the fact that half the world is lit up at any given time is a "scientific theory" that should be discarded. After all, anyone can call up someone on the other side of the world and simply ask them if it's day or night. So, it seems, this "scientific fact" from the Talmud has fallen by the wayside, even in most Chareidi communities. Many other disproven, facts, however, don't seem to be discarded as easily.
The other option that is sometimes presented is the idea of Nishtanu Ha't'vaim (nature has changed). In other words, while the scientific statements made in Talmud may not be true now, they were true at the time that they were made; however, a fundamental shift in nature occured causing the science to change. So, for some, that has become the answer: Medicinal remedies presented in the Gemara don't work? Nishtanu Ha't'vaim. You can't use black cat ashes to view Sheidim? Nishtanu Ha't'vaim. The sun doens't go through windows anymore? Nishtanu Ha't'vaim. The sun no longer orbits the earth? Nishtanu Ha't'vaim.
Of course, one is then entitled to ask at what point nature changed. When did the celestial mechanics change so that the earth now orbits the sun instead of the other way around? What has fundamentally changed about nature that rememdies mentioned in the Talmud no longer work? Of course, there are no answers for these "questions."
I've heard some Chariedim espouse that they have no objection to science in an operational sense, but have objections to it in a "historical" sense. In other words, they have no problems with modern scientific findings, but when they start encroaching on areas such as Creation and the genesis of Man, then the science becomes "unkosher." However, none of the issues that I brought up above have to do with Creation or Genesis. I purposely did not address the well-trodden subjects of cosmology, evolution or the Flood. I stuck to matters that are purely "operational" in order to sidestep such arguemnts.
Those that view the Talmud as a science text or history text are missing the boat. They don't realize that aside from it's function in the transmission of Torah, it gives us insights into the lives led by people living in those times - and that includes their views of science, technology, theology, art, history and many other disciplines. But in these areas, it's not an infallible text; it's merely a reflection of the knowledge of the times.