Thursday, October 6, 2011

Rambam and Chazal - Part 2

In his post entitled Musta Jew Believe Anything?, Rabbi Slifkin endorses M. Kellner’s view that Maimonidean theology considers the refinement of the intellect as the goal of Judaism whereas the “normative” approach to Judaism considers the physical performance of mitzvos as the ultimate achievement of mankind. And while this author strongly disagrees with this characterization, the purpose of this blog entry is not to point out the fallacies inherent in this attitude. Rather, its function is the analysis of the evidence Rabbi Slifkin delineates in support of his position. Here’s what he writes:

The most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism emerges from comparing the Talmud's discussion of conversion to Judaism with that of Rambam.

Rabbi Slifkin then juxtaposes the following two quotes, the first from the gemara, the second from the Rambam.

The Rabbis taught: If someone comes to convert, we say to him: “Why do you see fit to convert… If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. We inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot… we do not overwhelm him, and we are not exacting with him… (Yevamos 47a)

And here is how Rambam paraphrases it:

How do we accept righteous converts… When a gentile comes to convert… we say to him, “Why do you see fit to convert… If he says, “I know, and I am unworthy,” we accept him immediately. And we inform him of the fundamentals of religion, which are the unity of God and the prohibition of idolatry, and we dwell upon this at length. And we inform him of a few light mitzvot and a few serious mitzvot, but we do not dwell upon this at length… (Hilchos Issurei Biyah 14:1-2)

Rabbi Slifkin then makes the following comment:

Look at the sentence that Rambam inserted! 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…

There can be “no denying” the “tremendous gulf”… all due to the insertion of one sentence… amazing.

First of all, any seasoned yeshiva man understands that Rambam’s halachos often contain subtle variations from the text of the Talmud. In fact, one of our largest bodies of literature is dedicated specifically to the explication of the Rambam when he seems to diverge from the pashtus of the gemara. The underlying idea which weaves its way through this unique corpus of scholarship is the awareness that Rambam must ultimately be reconciled with the gemara. There are over three hundred books written on the Yad HaChazaka and all of them adhere to this principle. Accordingly, the first place Rabbi Slifkin should have looked is in the mifarshei haRambam. Had he done so, he would have found the following: 

1) Rambam Hil. Issurei Biya 14:1-2 – Informing a potential convert of the fundamentals of religion is not the only thing Rambam added in paraphrasing the Braisa in Yevamos. He also added the halacha of hatafas dam bris for a ger who is born mahul (making a cut and drawing a small amount of blood in a case where the potential convert is born without a foreskin). This clearly blunts the force of Rabbi Slifkin’s argument from Rambam’s other addition.    

2) Magid Mishna (ad loc.) – Magid Mishna explains that although Rambam’s dictum (delineating at length the prohibition of idolatry) is not found in the Braisa, Rambam added it because he felt that it was pashut. The process of conversion entails a fundamental change of attitude, the adoption of a brand new theology. Naturally the basic tenets of Judaism must be explained at length. Anyone reading the MM can clearly see that his explanation is specifically designed to reconcile the Rambam with the Gemara, not to put the two at odds.

3) Keser Mishna (ad loc.) – Keser Mishna not only concurs with Magid Mishna’s interpretation of the Rambam, he presents an indication that MM is correct from the gemara itself (the following is a Talmudic line of reasoning).

Maharsha (ad loc.) questions the necessity of informing a potential convert of the prohibition of idolatry (Naomi and Rus – Yevamos 47b). After all, gentiles are already prohibited from same. Based on this question, Keser Mishna concludes that the implication of the gemara is that the Oneness of Hashem (i.e. the rejection of idolatry) must be explained to the convert at length (as opposed to a discussion of the physical mitzvos which requires brevity). According to Keser Mishna the gemara itself is a plausible source for the Rambam’s halacha. The conclusion MM arrived at is actually indicated in the very words of Chazal.

4) Aruch La’ner (ad loc.). AL broaches Rabbi Sifkin’s question. In fact he expands on it. Not only is the obligation to discus the fundamentals of Judaism absent from the Braisa, the very notion that one must expand upon them (at length) contravenes the spirit of the Braisa which enjoins brevity. AL posits the following.

During the course of discussion, the Braisa suddenly inserts the injunction that we must inform the potential convert that the Jewish nation is unable to receive an abundance of affliction. What is this doing in the middle of the Braisa? The answer is, since we have frightened the potential convert by telling him so much about our afflictions (afflicted, harassed, downtrodden, oppressed etc.) we switch tracks and console him. We let him know that there is a limit to the afflictions of our nation. This idea is in line with the other words of consolation the Braisa lists (e.g. reward for mitzvos).

This pattern, claims AL, is the source for Rambam’s assertion. The gemara (47b) explains that the reason we are brief with a potential convert is because we learn from Naomi and Rus and in that case Naomi was warning Rus, not encouraging her. From this we see that the concept of brevity applies only to negative reinforcement. The implication is that speaking positively about our religion, speaking words which explain its tenets and compel the convert to keep them is exempt from the injunction of “brevity”. On the contrary, it is encouraged. This is why Rambam maintains that we should speak at length to the convert about the fundamentals of our religion.

5) Rashi states openly that the injunction of brevity applies solely to words of “warning” (47b s.v. v’ein).

In view of the preceding shakla v’tarya, in view of the fact that the Rambam adds more than just the injunction for teaching fundamentals, in view of the opinion of the Magid Mishnah, the Keser Mishna, the Aruch La’Ner, Rashi, and the implication from Maharsha’s question, it would seem clear that Rambam can easily be aligned with Chazal.

The preceding presentation was a standard Talmudic analysis of the sugya at hand. It was not too complicated and did not require the invocation of “deep reasoning powers” (pilpul). Rabbi Slifkin could have easily researched the sugya just as we did. Instead he chose to draw the most outlandish conclusions based on an extra sentence in the Rambam without any research whatsoever. Had he investigated the sugya properly, he would have never claimed that the supposed gulf between Rambam and Chazal is “undeniable”, at least not on the heels of his quotation from the Rambam in Hil. IB.

This concludes our treatment of the Gemara in Yevamos and the Rambam in Hil. Issurei Biya. Comments welcome…

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