Thursday, June 18, 2009

DISrespecting Rishonim

Following on from my previous post about respecting Rishonim, I would like to point out a curious fact about disrespecting Rishonim.

It is clear that many people consider it unacceptably disrespectful to claim that Rishonim made a scientific error i.e. they were unaware of the later revelations of science.

However, many of these same people consider it perfectly acceptable to say that certain Rishonim were unaware of the later revelations of kabbalah.

This is despite the fact that the former position merely means that their science was flawed, whereas the latter position means that their Judaism was flawed (according to these people, in a very fundamental way).

Strange, no?

25 comments:

  1. Do you have any examples for the kabbalah idea?

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  2. Sure. Leshem, sefer HaDeah, vol. II, drush 3 anaf 7 s.v. Ve'omer. It's approvingly cited in sefer Chayyim Emunasam to account for "hashkafically problematic" statements of the Rishonim. The same sefer considers it unacceptable to say that the Rishonim erred scientifically.

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  3. "unaware of the later revelations of kabbalah"

    By "later" do you mean by R' Luria?

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  4. Not strange, because it is an apologetic, and addresses a local concern.

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  5. Not strange, because whether you yourself agree that kabbalah is the "secrets of the Torah" alluded to by Chazal the Rishonim do not generally seem to indicate that they know OR actively deny knowing what the content of that tradition.

    And again even if one disagrees that kabballah is the "secrets of the Torah" I doubt anyone really agrees that Ma'aseh Breshis is the physics of Aristotle, nor do I believe that most would be inclined to interpret Sefer Yetzirah as a "rationalist" work.

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  6. They do not claim to be omniscient about science either!

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  7. "They do not claim to be omniscient about science either!"

    I don't see how that supports the assertion it is disrespectful to assert that kabballah is the sod referred to by Chazal while the Rishonim generally weren't privy to it.

    And for the record I don't see where I've argued that Chazal claim omniscience with regard to science.

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  8. Maybe we are misunderstanding each other. I thought you were saying that it is not disrespectful to say that they did not know kabbalah, but it is disrespectful to say that they did not know modern science.

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  9. My life might be a lot easier if I was as un-nuanced as some people assume I am.

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  10. I do not see how my words can be interpreted as suggesting the Rishonim where infallible in areas of science....especially insofar as the only mention of their scientific opinions was to disagree with them.

    In this case I'm still inclined to believe the fault is with your reading and not my writing.

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  11. OK, let's start again. What were/are you trying to say?

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  12. 1.How can it be disrespectful to say that the Rishonim did not know the secrets of the Torah when they denied (or at least were silent about) knowing what the secrets of the Torah where?

    This question stands whether or not you agree what is popularly identified as the secrets of the Torah actually are or not.

    2. If it is disrespectful, then why is it not disrespectful to reject the Rambam's hypothesis that the secrets of the Torah refer to physics and metephysics...i.e. Aristotle's philosophy which he [esentially] understood as natural science?

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  13. I don't think that it is disrespectful! I am only pointing out that if one thinks that it is disrespectful to say that they did not know the later revelations of science, then it would also be disrespectful to say that they did not know the later revelations of Torah. I am just pointing out the inconsistency.

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  14. "I am just pointing out the inconsistency"

    I understand that is your main point (although I think that's essentially an et tu argument but have to think more about it) but you also asserted that to argue that the Rishonim were not privy to the sod would imply that their Judaism was flawed.

    In truth according to everyone (or either side at least) they did not generally (or openly) possess knowledge of the sod referred to by Chazal, so l'maaseh (l'machshava?) I don't think you can argue that such a position implies the Rishonim had a flawed Judaism.

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  15. Of course these people are implying that these Rishonim's Judaism is flawed. After all, acc. to these people, these Rishonim incorrectly thought that parts of Gemara are flawed scientific information, whereas in fact acc. to these people it is all Torah m'Sinai.

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  16. I believe you muddy the waters when you use the term "revelation" to refer to that which is considered acceptable in both science and pre-scientific theory. In the scientific era, it is unacceptable to rely on the authority of a personal revelation to explain natural phenomena. The scientific statement must be backed by supporting reproducible evidence [or some functional equivalent]. The scientific statement, thus presented, will have to withstand a continual scientific onslaught. And it is almost certain to be tweaked to fit new evidence.
    The Darwin-Wallace hypothesis [which is 150 years old this year] is a fabulous case-in-point. The underlying principle that evolution is eventually played out through natural selection has withstood the original doubts, continues to undergo refinement and development, and is verified by hundreds of thousands of studies that directly use evolutionary theory as the underpinning for further observations and explore consequent phenomena.
    Were the evolutionary theory of Darwin & Wallace based on revelation, it would not be subject to refinement and development...or even be falsifiable. After all, their revelation would be their revelation. QED.

    Explanations of natural phenomena based on revelation are from different paradigms than that which requires reproducible results or their functional equivalents.

    It is NOT disrespectful to say that Chazal or Rishonim...or anyone else from any era...are wrong about an approach or a fact. That's obvious. Anyone who denies this is either ignorant or deluded. The question is whether you can say they made "scientific error".
    You make a fundamentally flawed statement due to the fact that "science" as we mean the term DID NOT EXIST as a fundamental force in Jewish life at that time. This does not mean that it didn't exist anywhere in the world. For example, there were occasional early scientific approaches in Alexandria [circumference of the earth, human anatomy] or other parts of the Greco-Roman Empire. There were mathematical developments in Hindustan concerning orbits of those bright dots in the night sky. And so on...
    But those faded from the environment of the Jewish world by the Dark Ages and do not appear to be a fundamentally central feature of any particular society at the time anyways.

    Plese, DO say that their explanations were wrong. Say their approach was wrong for the purpose they were trying to achieve. You can even say that their revelations have been proven wrong by science.

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  17. Perhaps a way to makes sense (though I don't buy into it) is if you make a heirarchy of knowledge:

    The highest form of knowledge is Torah Nistar, followed by Torah Nigleh, followed by knowledge of the natural world.

    How could some Rishonim not be aware of Torah Secrets, but nevertheless had perfect, unerring knowledge of the natural world?

    It just means that some Rishonim were masters of Torah nigleh, but were not zocheh to receive Torah Nistar (for whatever reason). Still, since they were masters of Torah Nigleh, they certainly knew all there is to know about the natural world.

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  18. "Of course these people are implying that these Rishonim's Judaism is flawed."

    Ein hacha nami, it's possible to put it that way, unless you say that the rationalists secretly knew Kabbalah, or left room for deeper meaning(ie, along lines of the implications of the Rambam in Meilah; Sefer Hachinuch, IIRC, mentions that Taamei Hamitzvos are like fruits on a tree, with outer and inner meanings).

    Rav Aharon Feldman, shlita, writes:

    "Can an individual on his own decide to follow the minority opinion? No more than he is permitted to do so in any matter of Jewish law and certainly not in matters which determine our basic approach to Torah she b’al peh which is the domain of the poskim (recognized decisors of halacha) of the Jewish people"

    If there were rishonim, who did not have the correct opinion of "basic approach to Torah she b’al", while it's certainly not respectful to say that "their Judaism was flawed"(just as R. Yehuda Levi says in the preface to his revised Science/Torah book that it's not respectful to blatantly say that "Chazal were wrong"), in essence one might say that that's what one is saying. There's obviously an elemement of yiras hakavod when it comes to these matters.

    Essentially, one can say that there is an Orthodox way of saying that Hashkafa "developed", just as minhagim did, and l'havdil, Conservatives say for basic halacha. On the other hand, it is more complex, because there is something such as the hidden chain of transmission for Kabbalah(which I am not an expert on).

    This is how R. Feldman puts it--he obviously doesn't think that Rishonim's Judaism was flawed :)

    "One of the most powerful reasons why R. Avraham’s opinion was rejected by most opinions, is the introduction of the wisdom of Kabbalah of the Ari Zal in the sixteenth century. This cast the Sages in another dimension. Before then, many authorities had held that the esoteric wisdom described in the Talmud as Ma’aseh Breyshis and Ma’aseh Hamerkava was science and philosophy. After the introduction of Kabbalah it became clear that these were the Sefer HaYetzira, the Zohar and the Tikkunim. This was accepted by the overwhelming majority of Torah scholars since then. Kabbala made it clear that when the Sages spoke, they based themselves on their knowledge of the mysteries of creation. This would give them an accurate knowledge of matters of natural science as well."

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  19. Also, I might add that the rationalists have to deal with the miraculous and mystical elements of the gemara, such as birds burning up, t'chiyas hamesim of Amoraim, etc. Also, the Gra criticizes the Rambam for taking other types of things s'hlo k'pshuto.

    This is part of the issue as well--there is mysticism in gemarah, and it was not developed out of thin air by mekkuablim(this is independent of the point of the accepted chain of kabbalistic transmission).

    (I believe R. Avroham b. Harambam discusses one of the gemaras on t'chiyas hamesim of one of the Amoraim, BTW--does anyone recall what he says ?)

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  20. Gary - everything you say is true, but I think it's acceptable to use loose terminology, as long as there's people like you around to clarify things once in a while!

    Shades - you are quite right that "Essentially, one can say that there is an Orthodox way of saying that Hashkafa "developed" - however it is strange that they do not consider it acceptable to say that knowledge of science developed!

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  21. "Of course these people are implying that these Rishonim's Judaism is flawed. After all, acc. to these people, these Rishonim incorrectly thought that parts of Gemara are flawed scientific information, whereas in fact acc. to these people it is all Torah m'Sinai."

    1. That may be, but it is a different issue than the topic of the post and our prior discussion which was whether their assertions about the (lack of) knowledge of Kabballah among the Rishonim representing a flawed Judaism.

    2. According to this argument don't you disrespect the Tosephos (also Rishonim) as having a "flawed" Judaism?

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  22. I'm sorry, I don't understand either of your points. Please could you elaborate.

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  23. 1. Initially you wrote: "the former position merely means that their science was flawed, whereas the latter position means that their Judaism was flawed (according to these people, in a very fundamental way)." arguing that the latter position, that the Rishonim were not aware of kabballah, would represent a flaw in their Judaism. In subsequent comments I pointed out that you were not merely pointing out an inconsistency, but taking an affirmative stance that such a position implied the Rishonim had a flawed Yiddishkeit according to such a position. In response you replied "Of course these people are implying that these Rishonim's Judaism is flawed. After all, acc. to these people, these Rishonim incorrectly thought that parts of Gemara are flawed scientific information, whereas in fact acc. to these people it is all Torah m'Sinai."

    Very subtly, and I'm quite sure unintentionally, you have changed the subject from the, shall we say, "Chareidi" view disrespecting the Rishonim regarding their knowledge of kabballah to disrespecting them regarding their opinions regarding Chazal and science. These issues may be related, though I don't believe they are inherently so, but they are two different issues. You phrased yourself as though you were supporting your assertion but in fact were making a different one.

    2. You argued, "Of course these people are implying that these Rishonim's Judaism is flawed. After all, acc. to these people, these Rishonim incorrectly thought that parts of Gemara are flawed scientific information, whereas in fact acc. to these people it is all Torah m'Sinai."

    Such a overarching definition of disrespect, essentially equating it with disagreement, can be applied to you as well. Following your line of reasoning one could say, "Of course Rabbi Slifkin is implying that Tosefos' Judaism is flawed. After all, acc. to him, these Rishonim incorrectly thought that parts of Gemara which contain flawed scientific information actually spoke of the metzius of things even though the Chachamim rejected such opinions in favor on non-Jewish scholars!"

    Any clearer?

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  24. 1. The issues are related in that I have seen the Rishonim's lack of knowledge of kabbalah given as the reason for why they were willing to interpret Chazal as making scientific statements that are fallible.

    2. I don't believe that someone's Judaism is flawed because they make a mistake. But many anti-rationalists claim that to say that Chazal made a scientific statement that was in error is kefirah or close to kefirah.

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