Sunday, October 30, 2011

Open Orthodoxy - Part 2

We wrote a bit about Open Orthodoxy in our previous post but I feel that more needs to be said. As per the mandate of this blog we will use Rabbi Slifkin’s comments from his post on this topic as a springboard, simultaneously analyzing his reaction to Open Orthodoxy’s feminist dogma while offering some of our own insights regarding Jewish feminism in general.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:
There is a raging controversy regarding "Open Orthodoxy" and especially its changes to the role of women in Judaism. I must confess that I am really, really not "up" on it.

This author makes the same confession. Nonetheless, the comments that will be made here which relate to halacha have been researched.

Rabbi Slifkin:
With that introduction, let me draw your attention to a source that recently crossed my path, and to an observation.
First, the source. Embarrassed apologies if I am late to the party with this one, but the idea that only a modern feminist Reformer would be dissatisfied with the berachah of shelo asani ishah appears to be neatly refuted by this Italian woman's siddur from 1471, which changes the berachah of she-asani kirtzono to she-asisani ishah ve-lo ish: 
Rabbi Slifkin is committing an error of conflation. Let’s delineate Open Orthodoxy’s claims re the aforementioned bracha and compare them with the brachos found in this Italian siddur.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, a prominent exponent of Open Orthodoxy, YCT advisory board member, and a member of the RCA, justifies his omission of the bracha shelo asani isha as follows: “Each morning we actually reinforce the inherited prejudice that holds that women possess less innate dignity than men… I cannot take God’s Name in the context of this blessing anymore. I suspect, at this point in history, that it constitutes a desecration of the Name, God forbid. In time-honored rabbinic tradition, "better to sit and not do.”

Now let’s compare this to Rabbi Slifkin’s Italian siddur. If you notice, there are three brachos there which do not appear in our siddur, and all relate to women. 1) that You made me a woman and not a man 2) that You did not make me a slave or maidservant 3) that you did not make me a female gentile.

This siddur was obviously written specifically for women! It doesn’t just omit shelo assani isha. It also omits shelo asani goy and shelo asani aved.

Kanefsky has a problem. He would like to imagine that there is perfect equality between men and women and therefore he would like to eliminate the bracha of shelo assani isha entirely. The Italian Siddur makes no such attempt. In fact the printer makes it clear that there are differences between men and women and some of those differences reflect positively in women’s favor. That’s why the woman says shelo assani Ish!

Now, from a halachic perspective the Italian siddur is not so bad. The gemara in Menachos (43b) mentions the obligation of stating three berachos each day, that He didn’t make me 1) a gentile, 2) a slave, 3) a woman. All three berachos are expressed in lashon zachar. Apparently the Italian Siddur attempted to modify the grammar of these berachos such that they accurately reflect the female condition. Admittedly its initial modification, “that You made me a woman and not a man”, is interesting. But it should, be noted that our standard nusach, “sh’asani kir’tzono”, is not found in the gemara. It was a subsequent addition. In fact, R’ Yaakov Emden in his siddur feels that women should not make this bracha with shem u’malchus because it does not appear in Chazal. Also, he feels the brachos of shelo asani goy/eved should be modified to reflect lashon nikeiva, just as it appears in the Italian Siddur, but a woman shouldn’t say it with shem u’malchus because, once again, it does not appear in Chazal.

Of course, I am not advocating that women should follow the nusach in the Italian Siddur. But it is a fact that many Jews over the course of history attempted to add brachos to the accepted seder. Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 46:8) makes reference to such people and claims they are mistaken but that’s it. Adding is not so bad. Deleting is an entirely different story!

Open Orthodoxy would like to see the bracha of shelo assani isha deleted from the siddur. They are attempting to be meshaneh mi’mat’beah she’tavu chachamim (see Berachos 11, Yad Hil. Kerias Shema 1) and this is entirely unacceptable, both halachically and philosophically.

Our next post will deal with Rabbi Slifkin’s remark re the prayer Hanosein Teshua L’mlachim.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Open Orthodoxy

Rabbi Slifkin wrote a bit about Open Orthodoxy here. I’m jotting down some of my musings. Indented paragraphs are quotes from Rabbi Slifkin's blog.  
Personally, I am fairly conservative, with a small "c," from a halachic standpoint. I believe that in order for Orthodoxy to survive, it must follow the approach of Rav Glasner and Rav Herzog, whereby we accept the authority of Chazal regardless of whether we agree with their reasoning. I believe that, in the face of contemporary challenges to the halachic lifestyle and ideology, a certain amount of stubborn rigidity is required…
This is a highly curious statement. Rabbi Slifkin has made it his life’s career to demonstrate the fallibility of Chazal while simultaneously mitigating the authority of their most distinguished and effective promulgators i.e. our gedoley Yisrael. If he truly believes that the only way Orthodoxy can survive is by accepting the authority of Chazal, perhaps he should consider modifying his career a bit.
I see God as undeniably and necessarily unequal in His distribution of opportunities.
I agree, but only partially. There is no question that men possess a lot more opportunities than women and that this is a necessary arrangement. But “more” in this context refers to quantity, not quality. When it comes to a qualitative distribution of opportunities, women are almost on par with men. Some say even more. I personally wouldn't say that because men have the mitzvah of Talmud Torah and women don’t. And Chazal even go so far as to ask “nashim ba’mai ka’zachu”? But there’s no question that from a functional standpoint they are basically equals inasmuch as their respective roles are indispensable to eachother, to the family unit as a whole and to the ongoing perpetuation and welfare of mankind in general.

So if from a functional perspective a women’s role is just as important as a man’s, why do men make the bracha of shelo asani isha? Is it simply because they get the opportunity to do more mitzvos? Maybe. But I’m in kiruv and I know this response rings hollow in the ears of many of the teenage girls and women in my audience. Here’s a response I developed based on the teachings of my rebbi, one which I believe is emes l’amito (although not necessarily the only reason).

If you take a look at the birchos ha’shachar you will notice that each and every bracha constitutes a form of our expression of hakaras hatov to Hashem for the physical benefits He bestows upon us! We thank Him for our eyesight, we thank Him for our balance, we thank Him for our strength and we thank Him for our clothing. We even thank Him for our alarm clocks (first bracha).

What about the more ethereal blessings? Well, even they possess a physical connotation. Ozer Yisrael b’gvura refers to our belts. Oter Yisrael b’sifa’ara refers to our hats.  She’asah li kol tzorki refers to our shoes. It all relates to the physical benefits Hashem bestows upon us on a daily basis.

In view of this, the bracha of shelo asani isha is simple to understand. How so? Let’s delineate some physical benefits men have over women.

Men are stronger than women. Men are taller than women. Men are faster than women. Men are more capable of defending themselves than women. In general, men are more independent than women. A bachur can walk to shul at night for a late ma’ariv. A girl cannot (or at least should not) venture outside on the street at night alone. Men do not undergo the physical pains of child-birth. If a man wants to have a child(ren), he does not have to undergo the pains of child-bearing. He doesn’t experience morning sickness. His strength doesn’t wane. His emotional state remains stable (as stable as it normally is anyway) and his ankles don’t bloat. Women are generally dependant on men for their physical well-being and their societal status. Women are generally subjugated to the will of their husbands (at least they should be). These are only a few of the physical benefits men enjoy over women.

In this world men have it better than women. Accordingly men are obligated to thank Hashem for this benefit. Hence the bracha shelo asani isha. You might ask, why state the bracha in the negative? The answer is two-fold. Practically it is too time-consuming to thank Hashem for each and every physical benefit we enjoy over women. When would we find time to eat breakfast? A bracha stated in the negative covers all the details (although every man should have a particular benefit in mind when he makes the bracha).

Second of all, sometimes things stated in the negative serve to enhance our appreciation of the positive. By stating shelo asani isha we start thinking of all the physical encumbrances women possess and this helps us realize how grateful we as men need to be to Hashem for what He gave us. There is a kabbalistic concept in Chazal referred to as “yisron ha’or min ha’choshech”; the superiority of light when contrasted with darkness. A flashlight is not appreciated during the day as much as it is at night…      

But what about the intrinsic value of women in comparison to men? Does all this make a man more important than a woman? Of course not! Does it make his Neshama superior to that of a woman? No way. Is his chelek l’olam haba any more assured? Not at all. In fact, Chazal state that the “promise” to women (of a share in the world to come) is greater than that of the promise to men (see Maharal in his dissertation to Shabbos Shuva). In the world to come men and women will be perfectly equal. We will all sit together and sing to Hashem. No mechitzos in olam habba. No problems with kol isha...

I see it as being perfectly reasonable, as well as strongly supported by modern science, to state that the differences between men and women extend beyond their physical differences.
And I am way too suspicious of the transient nature of contemporary morality to demand that Judaism conform to it.
Actually Rabbi Slifkin should never demand that Judaism conform to outside morality, even non-contemporary morality. The old morality of the umos ha-olam was no better than today’s morality. Besides, our morality is divinely revealed and transmitted via our mesorah. It doesn’t have any competitors…  

Good Shabbos to our readers!

Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chareidi Judaism

In a recent post entitled Charedi Judaism at a Crossroads, Rabbi Slifkin discusses certain issues in the Chareidi world which he considers problematic. I’ve jotted down a few random musings which came to mind. The truth is, I thought long and hard before writing this post. I don’t like to write about politics. Too much subjectivity; too many variables to account for, too much fluidity associated with its fundamental premises. And on the flip side, we have Rabbi Slifkin.

Rabbi Slifkin is an expert in politics. Ever since his books were banned he has gone on a political campaign to clear his name. And while I can’t say that I blame him for his initial response, the fact that he chooses to maintain his campaign on an ongoing basis has caused him to adopt and promote ideas and ideologies that are not only foreign to our traditions, but oftentimes undermine the very fabric of our religion. But this is not the topic of our post. Our topic is politics. So let’s talk politics.

Rabbi Slifkin writes:

What should the Orthodox rabbinate do about the Charedi far-right?

Charedi far-right? To my mind that’s a buzz word used by Modern Orthodox (MO) pundits to imply disparity amongst the Orthodox. But is there really a fundamental division in the ranks of Traditional Orthodox Jewry (TOJ)? Like any other conglomeration of individuals united by a common goal, TOJ enjoys a wide spectrum of personalities and backgrounds, chasidish, litvish, heimish, yekish, yeshivish, etc. They like to bicker amongst each other and they like to consider their personal Rabbi/Rebbe/Rosh Yeshiva as one of the most important leaders of klal Yisrael. But after all is said and done there are some minimum requirements which must be satisfied in order for one to consider himself a member of TOJ. Chief amongst them is reverence for our Torah leaders.

You know why Rabbi Slifkin refers to certain individuals as “Charedi far-right”? Because these individuals are most vociferous in upholding the authority of our gedolei Torah. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that this attitude is a fundamental dogma which undergirds the very essence of TOJ. (There is of course an alternative possibility. Rabbi Slifkin does indeed understand this state of affairs and is trying his best to undermine it.) Every individual who associates himself with TOJ accepts this principle, more or less. Some do it sincerely. Some only pay lip service. And some are somewhere in between. But if you want to be a member of the TOJ club, acceptance of Torah authority is a minimum requirement.            

Rabbi Slifkin:

The question threatened to split the Orthodox world after the bans on Kamenetzky, Slifkin and Lipa, the silence on Tropper, the neglect of the abuse issue, and the economic collapse of the Charedi world.

“Threatened to split”… Doubtful. I happen to be a card-carrying member of the chareidi world and I did not sense any impending split amongst our ranks. The fact is there is no split. Sometimes however, there is, unfortunately, a defection from our ranks. This occurs for several reasons chief amongst them the influence of Western culture and ideology. And sometimes we are even undermined from within. Rabbi Slifkin considers himself an explicator of rational Judaism but unfortunately his approach is not seen that way by our gedoley Yisrael. They see it as a form of undermining rational Judaism. The fact that Rabbi Slifkin chooses to take on the vast body of gedoley Torah puts him squarely outside the confines of mainstream Orthodox Judaism and makes his personal theology very tenuous indeed.   

Rabbi Slifkin:

Even if no further changes are contemplated, doesn’t the approach suggest an understanding of mesorah fundamentally at odds with the rest of the Orthodox world, whereby mesorah means "what we do" as opposed to "what was traditionally done"?

It sure does! According to TJO, “what we do” must always be informed by “what was traditionally done”. This is not to say that Judaism cannot invent new customs or respond to new challenges with innovative approaches. But everything must be within the spirit of our mesorah. If not, all is lost… 

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…

Rambam and Chazal - Part 1

This post is a continuation of our recent post entitled The Heart of the Matter and is written specifically for the purpose of responding to one of the remarks found in the comments section of the aforementioned post.

In his post entitled “Must a Jew Believe Anything?”, Rabbi Slifkin discusses some of M. Kellner’s views on the philosophy of Maimonides. Since Rabbi Slifkin enthusiastically endorses Kellner’s ideas, it behooves us to analyze the Kellner/Slifkin approach to see if it satisfies the rigorous standards of mainstream Torah scholarship.

Rabbi Slifkin, quoting M. Kellner, avers that Rambam’s primary theological focus is the status of the mind. According to Rabbi Slifkin, Rambam understood the goal of Judaism as the perfection of the intellect. Accordingly, it would seem to follow that the commandments of the Torah which enjoin physical activity do not possess independent qualities of goodness. In and of themselves they do not serve to increase the quality of the human condition; rather, they are vehicles for the refinement of the human mind, the intellect.

And while there is certainly room to dispute this notion, on a certain level it seems valid, enjoying support both in the works of Maimonides and Chazal. For instance, the Medrash Tanchuma (Shemini 8) asks:

Does the Holy One, Blessed be He really care if we slaughter an animal and eat it…or does He care if we eat pure [animals] or impure?... Behold the commandments were given only to perfect mankind…                     

But then Rabbi Slifkin writes as follows:

Kellner then proceeds to discuss Rambam's view of the role of belief in Judaism and how it differs from the normative view. For Rambam, influenced as he was by Greco-Muslim philosophy, perfecting the intellect (which requires correct beliefs) is the goal of Judaism. Thus, those who believe in a corporeal God have utterly failed as Jews, no matter how many mitzvos they perform; whereas Ra'avad, reflecting the normative position, considered such people to be fine Jews, some of them even greater than Rambam (albeit mistaken).

Here’s where the Kellner/Slifkin approach begins to deteriorate. Ra’avad is clearly not disputing Rambam’s inclusion of Divine Corporeality into the categories of Heresy because he believed that people who do mitzvos are fine Jews despite their beliefs, and even better than the Rambam. If this was so, he would have disputed all five categories of heresy, not just corporeality. Ra’avad explains his position! The reason he disputes the specific category of Corporeality is because both the Torah and Chazal consistently use anthropomorphic descriptions of God. As such, Ra’avad considered the adoption of corporeality a legitimate error as opposed to the adoption of a heretical belief. See Kesef Mishna ad loc. who concurs with this understanding of the Ra’avad. Also, see Sefer haIkkarim for an alternative (and vastly toned down) version of the Ra’avad’s comment and an in-depth treatment of the machlokes between the Rambam and Ra’avad. Anyone studying these sources will immediately discern the erroneousness of the Kellner/Slifkin approach to the comment of the Ra’avad.

Unfortunately we have not yet addressed the concerns of the commenter mentioned at the beginning of this post. Accordingly, part 2 of this post will B’H continue with an extensive treatment of Rabbi Slifkin’s assertion that the contrast between the Braisa in Yevamos (47a) which outlines the parameters of proper conversion and the Rambam’s paraphrasing of that Braisa in the Yad serves as “the most striking example of the difference between Rambam's view and that of classical Judaism”.    

Stay tuned…

Rambam and Greek Astronomy

In our previous post, we wrote as follows:

Furthermore, he [Rambam] 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.

Although, as I mentioned, when it came to almost all disciplines the Rambam was machniya himself to the view of our sages, when it came to astronomy it seems that he leaned towards the wisdom of the Greek astronomers and their writings. This is most apparent in the Rambam’s writings on Kiddush haChodesh and seems puzzling in view of the Rambam’s normal modus operandi. In fact, this aberration is so uncharacteristic of the Rambam that he himself senses it and states as follows: (my translation)

and it should not be strange in your eyes that the view of Aristotle (which the Rambam accepts) is opposed to the view of our sages of blessed memory in this matter, for this view, that is, if they [the heavenly bodies] make noise is associated with the view of a fixed sphere and moving stars and you already know that the wisdom of the gentiles was decisive, in the matter of astronomy, over the wisdom of our sages as the sages themselves openly state ‘and the sages of the gentiles have triumphed’… (Moreh 2:8 Kapach ed. pg. 180)

Now before we go on it is important to note that in order to dismiss the view of the sages the Rambam first appealed to a direct quotation from Chazal. Thus, he supported his approach to astronomy by illustrating that Chazal themselves admitted defeat in this matter.

However, notwithstanding the Rambam’s hisnatzlus in this matter, Chazal’s seeming lack of knowledge in the field of astronomy when compared to that of the Greek's seems incongruous with the Rambam’s characterization of our sage’s wisdom. After all, wasn’t it the Rambam himself who stated in Pirush Mishnayos that:

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…

The implication is that our ba’alei mesorah were somehow aware of the greatest truths that all of the naturalists, all of the philosophers, all of the sages of the nations were able to reveal. If so, how could the wisdom of astronomy have escaped them?

But the mystery is cleared up once one reads the Rambam in the Yad Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh. The truth is our nation did have a tradition regarding astronomical calculations which originated with the biney Yisaschar and was passed down during the times of the neveim. Unfortunately, this discipline was lost during the Babylonian exile and thus our sages had no choice but to rely on the calculations of the Greek astronomers. (Rambam Hilchos Kiddush haChodesh 17:24)

Do not think it was strange that Chazal relied on the Greeks for astronomy. The Greeks were incredibly accurate with their calculations. For example, W.M. Feldman in his 1931 text (page 131) reports that Hipparchus, an ancient Greek astronomer, recorded the time between an eclipse measured by the Babylonians and one measured by himself less than 400 years later. He found that there were 4,267 lunations and that the exact duration was 126,007 days and 1 hour. Thus, the average lunation in terms of days would be 3,024,169 hours divided by 24 divided by 4,267 lunations equaling 29.53059 days. This is astounding as it is only one half second off from present day calculations for the average Sinodic month!

(To the reader: I do not have a copy of Feldman’s book. If memory serves, I was informed of this calculation by one of my colleagues. I double checked the math and it works but if someone has access to Feldman’s book (Rabbinical Mathematics and Astronomy) I would appreciate verification of the above.)

In conclusion, the fact that the Rambam accepted one or two statements of the Greek astronomers over those of Chazal is an aberration. It is an extremely rare exception and can in no way be used as an indication of how the Rambam felt regarding the status of Chazal’s scientific knowledge. Unfortunately, the academic world loves to tout this instance as an example (of supposedly many more examples) of the Rambam’s general attitude to Chazal. What is even more unfortunate is that they’ve managed to infiltrate our ranks. They’ve managed to generate a whole deal of obfuscation and even managed to influence one of our more talented Chareidi (former) brethren to adopt their views and make it the clarion call of his Rationalist Blog. Chaval al di’avdin… 

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'ĂȘtre 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.