Monday, June 29, 2009

"I don't understand" - or do I?

The discussion about disputes over approach/ content being misleadingly labeled as disputes over "tone" began with Rabbi Seinfeld's comments to an earlier post, when he made statements such as the following:

In these discussions of Torah and science, is anything lost by pointing out a stira between science and a maamer chazal with those humble words, "I don't understand this Gamara"?
To do so doesn't sacrifice one iota of critical thinking - nor does it sacrifice kavod.

In a post referencing my response, R. Josh Waxman made the following excellent comments:

I would say that the person he is responding to is being silly. It is not a matter of mere tone to refuse to come to a conclusion. And saying "I don't understand the gemara" is not the same as saying "I understand the gemara in accordance with the Rishonim that Chazal can err in science." This is no mere difference in "tone." It is unfortunate that "frumkeit" and false modesty make people believe that they are not allowed to think.

And meanwhile, if one refuses to come to a conclusion out of piety, there is little to no chance of making use of a conclusion. And understanding that, and how, Chazal made use of contemporary science is potentially extremely useful in coming to understand the correct peshat in countless gemaras.

Furthermore, so many of these non-rationalists are under the mistaken impression that saying Chazal relied on contemporary science and thus erred on occasion detracts from Chazal. In fact, it is just the opposite! I have greater respect for them for this. They did not close their minds to evidence and to knowledge from secular sources, thinking that scientific statements about the world from centuries past were Divinely given. Rather, we see from explicit examples and many implicit examples that they looked to contemporary science. They believed in Torah UMaddah on some level! Which we rationalists respect greatly, even as some non-rationalists do not. That occasionally, or frequently, this led to adopting mistaken positions is no reflection on the piety, or the intelligence of those who held these up-to-date scientific positions.

And it's appropriate to see how Rav Hirsch approached such topics:

In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai.
Nowadays too it is enough for the non-specialist to know about any of these areas of knowledge whatever contemporary experts teach that is generally accepted as true. This applies to the lawyer vis-a-vis all other areas, to the mathematician and the astronomer regarding the natural sciences, and to the expert on flora regarding all other areas. We expect none of them to seek out the truth and satisfy his inclinations in any field other than his own specialty.
Moreover, even in the area where one is an expert, it is neither possible for him nor expected of him to know everything through personal investigation and experience. Most of his knowledge rests upon the investigations of others. If they have erred it is not his fault. It is sufficient and praiseworthy if his knowledge encompasses all that is accepted as true at his time and place and generation. The greatness of his wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. The greatest of them knew all the wisdom and science of all the great non-Jewish scholars whose wisdom and teachings became famous in their generations.
Imagine if a scholar such as Humboldt had lived in their times and had traveled to the ends of the world for his biological investigations. If upon his return he would report that in some distant land there is a humanoid creature growing from the ground or that he found mice that had been generated from the soil and had in fact seen a mouse that was half earth and half flesh, and his report had been accepted by the world as true, wouldn’t we expect Chazal to discuss the Torah aspects that apply to these instances? What laws of defilement and decontamination apply to these creatures? Or would we expect them to go on long journeys to find out whether what the world has accepted is really true? And if, as we see things today, these instances are considered fiction, can Chazal be blamed for ideas that were accepted by the naturalists of their times? And this is what really happened. These statements are to be found in the works of Pliny, who lived in Rome at the time the Second Temple was destroyed, and who collected in his books on nature all that was well-known and accepted in his day.
The Talmud in Bova Kama declares “A human spine, after seven years, turns into a snake; this applies only if he did not kneel at Modim. “ Anyone who reads this finds it laughable, but Pliny says the same statement almost word for word, “After a number of years the human spine turns into a snake.” Chazal, however, used this to teach a mussor lesson. To any mind it is clear that every similarly surprising statement of Chazal, if we look into it, was accepted as true by the scholars of the time.
We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own...


  1. All the below is written with respect & appreciation for your work.

    You are dancing around the issue.

    It is precisely because you draw conclusions that caused the problem.

    Give a shtickel Torah on some Machlokes Acharonim on some sugya & draw conclusions -- no problem.

    Even come out L'Halacha on some sugya & show why say Rav Moshe's opinion makes more sense than the Mishna Berura -- also no problem.

    Of course this is all if you speak with Derech Eretz.

    But draw conclusions on some major Halachic issue -- say "Brain Death" -- & write a book about it -- you need to have a certain stature before you write it.

    But you did worse than even that. You concluded that an entire approach to Judaism can logically be shown to be incorrect -- for that you must have massive stature. But for some minor Ba'al Teshuva Yeshiva & Seminary teacher to come out & do it -- especially when you were considered "one of them" -- that was just to much.

    These days (except for Chabad) even Chasidim don't have the "Chutzpah" to write why their derech is the correct one. The book "Hagaon" got tremendous flack for doing the reverse.

    You would have been far better off if you had written a book that only showed the rationalist approach. (Yes, I know you have a blog post about this. But you knew before hand what position the Charedi world took).

    This can be very frustrating for those who are more intellectually open -- but you were a part of the Charedi world & should have know that.

    You tried to benefit from the religious structure of the Charedi world -- but misunderstood (or were misled by the sweet talking BT movement) as to how far you could push things.

    To walk into Chabad & start talking Rav Shach is also "approach" -- but if you respect Chabad you simply don't do it.

  2. I agree with almost everything you say, with one qualification. When you say that you must have "massive stature" - do you mean from their perspective, or from any perspective? I don't believe that I need have massive stature to explain why I prefer the rationalist approach, just as R. Chaim B. doesn't need massive stature to explain why he prefers the mystical approach.

    Also, when you say that I was "a part of the Charedi world & should have know that" - remember that I did make sure to get haskamos, and my books were welcomed for the first few years. In addition, I (utterly naively) did not imagine that anyone would say that something said by the Rishonim is unacceptable and even kefirah.

  3. The following isn't exactly addressing the ikkar of your post, but some readers might find it interesting anyway.

    "Anyone who reads this finds it laughable, but Pliny says the same statement almost word for word, “After a number of years the human spine turns into a snake.”

    FWIW, this belief (assuming we're getting the exact translation, "turns into." See "$") goes back to Pythagoras, over 500 years earlier, according to

    $ The Greek is written here:


    This last link says "Pliny claims that in the spinal marrow festers a unique snake."

  4. Pliny's other friendJune 29, 2009 at 10:49 PM

    The following claim seems to me like one that R' Slifkin would like to challenge:

    "I want to make the point, that not only was RaMBaM a rationalist, he was also a mystic,
    one who achieved a high level of metaphysical understanding. I want to show in this
    essay that RaMBaM, the alleged rationalist master, was also a master of the secret
    tradition of the Kabbalah." --

    "This is in accord with the view of those who hold that Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon was not only a Talmudist and philosopher but also a Kabbalist.

    During the past 200 years, it has been revealed in Chabad-Lubavitch literature that he was also a mystic steeped in the study and traditions of Kabbalah. In fact, the source of some laws in his Code, Mishneh Torah, are found only in Kabbalistic literature."

  5. "The following claim seems to me like one that R' Slifkin would like to challenge:"

    I don't see the benefit of R. Slifkin challenging unless presented with specific evidence to support the claim.

    If such evidence was presented I think the bigger challenge would be how to relate to kabballah once their is evidence the system is considerably older than he is inclined to accept.

  6. See Marc Shapiro's new book "Maimonides and his Interpreters."

    There are two responses by non-rationalists to Rambam: either to claim that on his deathbed he renounced his approach, or to claim that he was a secret kabballist all along.

  7. "There are two responses by non-rationalists to Rambam: either to claim that on his deathbed he renounced his approach, or to claim that he was a secret kabballist all along."

    Stick to rationalism. A Rationalist is not likely to adequately represent the non-Rationalist viewpoint.

    The Chida explained Kabalistically why the Rambam didn't know Kabalah and others have letters that the Rambam wrote that are non non-Rational. Unless he wrote them on his deathbed.

  8. Sorry if you understood me to mean that there are "only" two responses. There are some non-rationalists who accept that Rambam was not one of them. I merely meant that there are two oft-heard responses from non-rationalists who cannot accept that Rambam didn't hold of their approach.

  9. As the topic of the Rambam and kabalah has been raised, I would like to ask, is anyone aware of any statement of the Rambam where he explicitly rejects the validity of kabalah per se?

    By this, I don't mean places where he rejects applying physical descriptions to God, as was done by some kabalists (based upon esoteric texts like Shiur Komah), or rejecting astrology as denying hashgacha. Statements to that effect can be found in the writings or major mekubalim as well.

    Does he anywhere explicitly state that Kabalistic concepts are inherently invalid?

    I ask this because kabalistic ideas (and distortions thereof) were well known in the Rambam's day, and it is unlikely that he did not know of them. At the same time, if he fundamentally rejected the premises of Kabalah, I would expect that there would be some explicit statement to that effect somewhere in his writings. The Rambam was not know to keep his opinions to himself regarding ideas he considered wrong and foolish.

    I have yet to come across such a statement. All the statements that I have encountered can easily be understood as rejections of distortions of kabalistic ideas, and parallel statements can be found in kabalistic sources as well.

  10. LazerA, the definitive work on this topic is Menachem Kellner's "Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism."

  11. Natan Slifkin said...
    LazerA, the definitive work on this topic is Menachem Kellner's "Maimonides' Confrontation With Mysticism."

    I have not had the opportunity to read the book (not available at my local library and I'm not able to spend $40 to buy a copy). From what I have read about the book, it seems that he basically argues that the Rambam was not a mekubal because he was a rationalist, as can be seen from various statements of the Rambam's.

    This does not tell us much. Asides from the fact that his proof texts, from what I have seen, seem debatable, the entire approach assumes that a medieval rationalist would automatically reject Kabalah. I'm not sure that this is true.

    In any event, my question isn't whether the Rambam was himself a mekubal. There is little, if any, evidence for that claim. My question is whether we have any evidence that he considered Kabalah to be an illegitimate approach. One need not utilize an approach to consider it valid.

    Is there any statement from the Rambam to that effect?

  12. That's not an accurate description of the book. He shows that Rambam was aware of the kabbalistic thought that existed in his day, and consciously countered many of its axioms.
    It's really one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. It's a pity that it's so expensive!

  13. Some references:

    1) Chidah and Migdol Oz linked below(Avodah V 23,#205, Comment #2).

    "R' Chaim Vital wrote that the Shoresh
    of the Rambam's Neshamah was from Peiah D'dikna D'Ze'eir Anpin Hasmalis, and
    that's why the Rambam did not merit Chochmas HaZohar. In the beginning of
    Sefer Migdal Oz it says that the Rambam occupied himself with Kabbalah
    toward the end of his life. According to what we mentioned in R' Chaim
    Vital's name, it could be that towards the end of his life he occupied
    himself with the uses of certain holy Names, as is seen from a Megillas
    Setarim attributed to the Rambam, and mentione (in Siman 117) by Maharam
    Alshakar. However, I saw that Sefer Shushan Sodos (in manuscript) that
    doubts whether that document is truly from the Rambam."

    2)Kol Menachem's "Rambam: The 13 Principles Of Faith- Principles 8 & 9" has a discussion of the Rambam and Kabbalah quoting the Migdol Oz, R. Reuvein Margoles and the last Lubavitcher Rebbe zt'l.

    On the one hand, it follows the approach of saying that the Rambam secretly knew Kabblah, and says that Mishnah Torah has similarities to Zohar.

    OTOH, rationalists would like that the Rebbe is quoted there as criticizing anyone who said that the Moreh was not a genuine Torah work.

    3) In the above-linked Avodah post(Comment # 7), one Rabbi Slifkin writes that he is "not sufficiently expert on
    Maimonidean philosophy to be able to evaluate this claim" [of Menachem Kellener].

    Has this since changed? :)

    4) Personally, I think there is enough that one is required to believe in Judaism, and although one might to show similarities between Maimonidean philosophy and Kabbalah, I don't think there is an ikkar in Yiddishkeit to change intellectual history and hold that the Rambam knew Kabblah.

    At least the nature of Rambam's own belief on Kabbalah is not a part of Maimonidean dogma!

  14. Are there sources, written after the Kabalistic revolution, that deny all of its non-Rational tenets?

  15. Reb Natan,

    In cases like the spine and the snake, why do you feel the need to say that Chazal *accepted* the statement as true, as opposed to saying that they *used* the statement for its mussar value regardless of its truth?

    I base the idea on the Ramchal's intro to midrashim.

  16. I've never researched the spine/snake case, nor written on it, so I assume that you are actually ask why *Rav Hirsch* accepted that they believed the statement rather than used it for its mussar value. I assume that this is because Rav Hirsch did not perceive any obvious mussar value, nor anything in the Gemara that indicates that Chazal did not believe it. When the non-Jewish scientists of the time say something, and Chazal say exactly the same thing without qualification, the presumption is that they meant the same thing.

  17. Rabbi Slifkin -- your last comment is very imprecise.

    They certainly did view a Mussar value -- that is the entire point of the Gemara & Rav Hirsch in this very letter says that they used it to make a Mussar point.

    That is not up for question.

    The question is when using it for its Mussar value did they actually believe it & it was therefore natural to use this natural phenomenon to make their Mussar point -- that is what Rav Hirsch says. The other approach is that they either didn't believe it but used it because everyone else did believe it or that it made no diiference to them (or to us) if they it is true as its value was the Mussar point.

    But be precise. In all of Rav Hiesch's cases his point is that the Rabbis use science of the day because they sought to make a Mussar or Halachic point. I don't think he actually speaks of their completely medical statements that don't have any Halachic or Mussar value.

  18. Whoops, that was an error on my part!
    I am not sure what you are asking. Hirsch assumes that they did believe it; there is no reason to think that they didn't. In the case of the spine/snake, it might not have mattered whether it was true, as long as others believed it, but what reason is there to think that chazal were skeptical about it?
    In the case of the mud-mouse, Chazal used it in two ways - to argue for techiyas hameisim, and to pasken halachos for it. So they certainly believed it.

  19. "In cases like the spine and the snake, why do you feel the need to say that Chazal *accepted* the statement as true, as opposed to saying that they *used* the statement for its mussar value regardless of its truth?

    I base the idea on the Ramchal's intro to midrashim."

    FWIW, Rav Aharon Feldman distinquishes between the Ramchal, which is okay, and RSRH's opinion, which is not.

    "Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch applies this argument to animals mentioned in the Talmud which do not seem to exist nowadays... the answer to this question is that although these giants did indeed espouse this view, it is a minority opinion which has been rejected by most authorities since then."

    RAF then quotes the Leshem as disagreeing with RSRH:

    "The main thing is: everyone who is called a Jew is obligated to believe with complete faith that everything found in the words of the Sages whether in halachos or agados of the Talmud or in the Midrashim, are all the words of the Living G-D..."

    In footnote # 31 he writes:

    "This applies where the Sages are stating a fact, not where their intention is allegorical. Ramchal (Maamar al Hagados) says the Sages employed scientific pronouncements to convey veiled mystical truths but were not necessarily true in themselves. It does not appear that the Leshem or the other opinions would disagree with this."

    The point is that RAF sees a conflict between the Leshem and RSRH, Rav Dessler etc, but not between the Leshem and the Ramchal.

    On another note, I'd like to see how R. Slifkin reconciles his views with Kabbalah.

    R. Chaim B. quotes Rav Tzadok, who quotes the Bach as holding it kefirah to accept the Rambam's view on Maaseh Merkava and Maaseh Bereshis, rather than mekkubalim(see also RAF's letter). If that is true, do any of RNS's mentors hold that one may reject kabbalah(or perhaps holding like the Rambam is not a rejection, as Rav Dessler says in the essay on R. Shmuel Hanagid regarding other Moreh issues)?

    Another issue: assuming it is a required belief to hold that Shlomo Hamelech knew contemporary science, then R. Slifkin doesn't gain anything in his approach for Talmudic times, because the same intuitive anachronsim applies(see Chazon Ish in Emunah Ubitachon Fifth Perek concerning the historical development of science).

    Perhaps one can philosophically play with these shittos, by saying that "we don't know what the Ruach Hakodesh of Shlomo meant, what Sod Hashem Liraev of chazal means"; so Chazal can consult shepards, admit to making errors, but they still have Ruach Hakodesh. So you can have your secualar history on the history of scientific development and eat it to :)

  20. What is the citation for the quote from R S.R. Hirsch?


Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.