Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Heart of the Matter

In his most recent post, Rabbi Slifkin gives the nod to Menachem Kellner’s book Must a Jew Believe Anything. In so doing, Rabbi Slifkin once again brings into sharp focus the raison d'être of this blog. Rabbi Slifkin writes that “One might quibble with the degree to which Kellner sets Chazal and Rambam at odds with each other, but there can be no denying that there was a tremendous gulf between them”. This, of course, is the fundamental premise which informs the field of “Maimonidean studies” in Western academic scholarship. It is also the furthest thing from the truth. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Rambam’s works understands the absurdity of such an assertion.

First of all, a simple appeal to common sense reveals the fallacy of Rabbi Slifkin’s approach to the Rambam. The Rambam’s most important work, the Yad haChazaka, is based entirely on the words of Chazal (other than the first four chapters of Hilchos Yesodei haTorah where the Rambam takes some of his ideas from Greek philosophy). Now, as a free and independent thinker, what are the statistical probabilities that the Rambam would concur with Chazal’s opinions in each and every one of his myriad halachos? If the term ‘impossible’ could ever be employed, this scenario would surely be a prime candidate. And yet the Rambam never digresses from Chazal. The entire Yad is the Rambam’s expressed opinion based solely on what he understood as the final conclusions of our sages both in matters which pertain to actions and matters which pertain to attitudes of the mind.

Furthermore, he makes countless scientific type statements (i.e. statements which relate to various laws of nature such as ein bishul achar bishul etc.) that are based entirely on Chazal with nary a twitter of dissent. This alone should be an obvious indication of the Rambam’s opinion regarding not only the halachos of Chazal but also their science.

The truth is the Rambam’s opinion of Chazal was so elevated that he annulled himself entirely to their view. If one wishes to understand the ‘essence’ of the Rambam in these matters, to understand the underlying premise which pervades all of his writings, the following select quotations from the Rambam’s preface to his Pirush HaMishnayos are edifying. The translation is mine and is based on Kapach’s edition of Pirush HaMishnayos l’Harambam.    

“And this fourth matter, that is, the exegetical sayings found in the Talmud, should not be considered trivial or of little benefit, for they are of enormous benefit in that they encompass within them the most profound allusions and wondrous ideas. When an appropriately deep examination of these sayings is conducted, the absolute good which cannot be surpassed can be gleaned from them. All of the lofty concepts and profound verities that the greatest of wise men concealed in their teachings, all of the conclusions that the philosophers toiled over throughout the generations, all can be revealed in their [Chazal’s] words…” (Kapach ed. pg. 19)

“And therefore, we must establish the truth of their (Chazal’s) words in our hearts. We must delve deeply into them and not hurry to dismiss a single saying of theirs. Rather, if something is found in their words which seems strange in our eyes, we must orient ourselves in the appropriate [corresponding] disciplines until we understand their meaning in this particular topic, assuming that we are even able to comprehend [their words] in the first place. For even our [latter] sages of blessed memory, despite the fact that they delved exceedingly into their studies, were clear of mind, were appropriately fit for the comprehension of wisdom, attached themselves to great people and entirely detached themselves from material pursuits, [and yet despite all this they] attributed a ‘lacking’ to themselves when comparing themselves to previous generations…so much more so ourselves…how can we not attribute a lacking to ourselves in comparison to them. And since they [the latter sages] knew that all of the words of the sages are well established from every angle, they were very protective of them and enjoined against slandering them and stated ‘whomsoever blandishes the words of the sages is judged in boiling feces’ and there is no worse ‘boiling feces’ than the foolishness that leads one to denigrate [the words of our sages]. And therefore, you will never find one rejecting their words but one who chases after lust, who favors materialism, who never enlightened his mind with any illumination whatsoever.” (Kapach ed. pg. 20-21)

Well, there we go. This is what the Rambam really felt about our sages. Those who portray the Rambam as an avant-garde thinker who forged a new path in the explication of Judaism even when it contradicted the opinions of the sages are far from a proper understanding of the Rambam’s true weltanschauung. The Western academic view of the Rambam amounts to nothing more than intellectual sophistry if not outright dishonesty. Dovid haMelech’s saying comes to mind: “lo yadu, v’lo yavinu, ba’chasheicha yis’halachu”.

Now to be fair it is well-known that Rambam was criticized by many gedolim for his involvement in philosophy. The Gra asserts that philosophy caused the Rambam to err in some of his Torah conclusions and the truth is the Rambam himself bemoans the fact that whereas initially he set out to make philosophy a handmaiden to the Torah, ultimately it became a competitor. But none of this detracts from what we are saying v'hameivin yavin.       

6 comments:

  1. The Rambam’s most important work, the Yad haChazaka, is based entirely on the words of Chazal... Now, as a free and independent thinker, what are the statistical probabilities that the Rambam would concur with Chazal’s opinions in each and every one of his myriad halachos?

    But he doesn't!

    Rabbi Slifkin gave one example in his blog post. Marc Shapiro quotes literally dozens of others in his book Maimonides and His Interpreters. Obviously in "dry" technical halachos there is little variation, but wherever Greek philosophy is relevant, Rambam DOES diverge from Chazal, either in the halachah or its explanation. (It probably wasn't conscious; Rambam probably believed that it's what Chazal must have meant.)

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  2. Rambam probably believed that it's what Chazal must have meant.

    Well, this is the main point. If the Rambam would be convinced that he misunderstood Chazal as they meant themselves to be understood, he would retract those decisions and defer to Chazal. This is in contrast to those who think they understand Chazal as they meant themselves to be understood and say they were wrong.

    The Rambam's supporters defended him as being loyal to Chazal. His detractors criticized him in some instances for being disloyal to Chazal. The axiomatic standard is loyalty to Chazal. Once one says he knowingly differs with Chazal the way they meant themselves to be understood, he is out of bounds of millenia of Torah scholarship and mindset. (Of course, it can be discussed/argued how Chazal in certain instances or areas meant themselves to be understood--but the arguments must follow traditional Torah methodology.)

    Because of this mindset, there is a vast literature defending the Rambam's understanding of Chazal where he apparently differs from them. The apparent difference may be caused by several factors, including unnecessarily assuming Rashi's or Tosefos' explanations of talmudic passages, ignorance of additional sources, or variant girsaos.

    I highly recommend a sefer with brilliant insights on this subject (with particular examples) entitled, הרמבם ללא סטיה מן התלמוד, by ר' בנימין זאב בנדיקט, published in 1985 by מוסד הרב קוק.

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  3. Yissachar,

    Gmar chasima tova! Thank you for writing.

    But he doesn't!

    Rabbi Slifkin gave one example in his blog post…


    I assume you are referring to Rambam’s alignment with Aristotle and the Greeks in the field of astronomy. This is an important point so I will dedicate an entire post to respond to your comment. Look for it tonight...

    Marc Shapiro quotes literally dozens of others in his book Maimonides and His Interpreters. Obviously in "dry" technical halachos there is little variation, but wherever Greek philosophy is relevant, Rambam DOES diverge from Chazal, either in the halachah or its explanation.

    I’m sorry but I do not possess any of Shapiro’s books and frankly do not intend on purchasing any of them in the near future. If you feel any of his examples are relevant, you are welcome to broach the topic with me and I will gladly investigate his claim. But please study his claim in depth before presenting it here. Once you present it, it becomes your claim. You cannot subsequently appeal to authority by invoking Marc Shapiro’s name. Besides, I don’t consider him an authority anyway. So please make sure you are personally prepared to defend your claim.

    (It probably wasn't conscious; Rambam probably believed that it's what Chazal must have meant.)

    Well, if you really believe that, then you and I are not arguing. I already conceded at the end of my post that in some cases Rambam may have been misled by his over-involvement in philosophy. Of course I personally would never have the chutzpah to say such a thing but this notion is well-known amongst certain Rishonim and even gedoley acharonim like the Gra. And as I pointed out, Rambam himself concedes the possibility that philosophy, rather than being a boon, was the bane of the Torah and its proper explication. But to say that Rambam intentionally developed a way of thinking about anything in Judaism which was in opposition to the ideas of the sages is sheer folly.

    Also, please read and re-read Rabbi Lampel’s comment. It is very important and I should have said it in my post. There are over 300(!) nosei keilim on the Rambam and all of them take for-granted that the Rambam must be aligned with Chazal. The Johnny-come-latelies like Strauss and Klein-Breslavy are nothing plus nothing in comparison to this overwhelming volume of Torah literature liberally strewn throughout the past eight centuries. These people are nothing but arrogant upstarts whose opinions are not worth the paper they are written on. BTY, in one of our online debates Rabbi Slifkin expressed deep admiration for Klein-Breslavy’s scholarship, erudition, and the cogency of her arguments. I read the passages in question and couldn’t get over the sheer shoddiness of her scholarship which just goes to show how far apart Rabbi Slifkin and I are on the issues but I guess you already knew that… :-)

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  4. "Rabbi Slifkin gave one example in his blog post…"

    I assume you are referring to Rambam’s alignment with Aristotle and the Greeks in the field of astronomy.


    No, that was not the example that he gave in the blog post! Did you read it?

    Well, if you really believe that, then you and I are not arguing.

    So who are you arguing with? Rabbi Slifkin didn't say anything different either! (Although I sense that you always try to interpret his words in the most negative light possible.)

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  5. Yissachar,

    No, that was not the example that he gave in the blog post! Did you read it?

    Yes. But I didn’t even imagine you were referring to that example. I thought you were referring to the much more powerful example that Rabbi Slifkin has broached on his blog many times, the one from astronomy. However, since you seem to be swayed by his argument, I will write a specific post demonstrating the fallacy of his argument. Please pay special attention to the format of my counter-argument. It will be exhaustively researched and will appeal to verifiable sources. The reason I am doing this is to show you the tenuousness of just reading an argument and accepting it without appropriate investigation. I’m also doing it to show you a proper example of how you should argue a point. Just stating your opinion doesn’t count.

    And since I promised to write the post on astronomy, I’ll do that too bl’n. I have to run out to kapparos, bedtime for kids, seder and maariv so don’t expect the posts until much later tonight.

    So who are you arguing with? Rabbi Slifkin didn't say anything different either!

    And:

    (Although I sense that you always try to interpret his words in the most negative light possible.)

    Spoken like a true chasid of his rebbe. Your first comment reveals a deep cognitive dissonance on your part. You’d like to believe that when Rabbi Slifkin maintains that Chazal and Rambam were at odds with each other and that there is a tremendous and undeniable gulf between them, that he doesn’t really mean it. That he somehow means that the tremendous gulf is the way we see it but somehow Rambam didn’t see it that way. Somehow Rambam consciously thought that he was agreeing with Chazal. Besides the fact that such a position can only be adopted due to serious reading comprehension issues (see for instance Rabbi Slifkin’s post of July 11 where he clearly asserts that according to Kellner Rambam was not reflective of mainstream traditional Judaism). But besides that, what emerges from your thesis is that a man with as gigantic an intellect as Rambam consistently erred in the interpretation of the sages and us chachamim along with the academic nevonim of the universities know better! We know that he really wasn’t aligned with Chazal! I’m sorry Yissachar but you are clearly conflicted.

    As far as your second comment, you sense incorrectly. But once again this demonstrates an emotional response, not an intellectual one. Rabbi Slifkin doesn’t get that sense from my writings. Just ask him! Why do you get it? Why waste your time and mine making such remarks. Besides, why waste your time with me if you are really choshed me of such nefarious motivations? As I mentioned, you are clearly conflicted. Please think about your position a bit more. Perhaps you will reconsider…

    I’ll get to the aforementioned posts hopefully later tonight…

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  6. Yissachar,

    As promised I have compiled a post which addresses Rabbi Slifkin's “evidence” from the juxtaposition of Rambam and gemara Yevamos. I just uploaded it now. Just so you know I did it in your honor. Normally I would have never spent so much time trying to refute such a poorly-considered claim. My sincere hope is that my post will at least alert you to the problems associated with accepting superficial arguments without any support.

    Be well,

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