Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Respecting Rishonim

Which is a more respectful approach towards a Rishon whose view one finds deeply problematic:

(A) Quoting him, explaining why he took this view, and respectfully explaining why one disagrees with his view and prefers the view of other Rishonim.

(B) Sharply criticizing the approach itself without letting on that it was the view of this Rishon.

Other alternatives are possible, but of these two options, which is more respectful? I would unhesitatingly say that the former is more respectful (aside from being more intellectually honest). After all, if one truly respects someone, one entitles them to having their position aired in their name even if one disagrees with it. But others genuinely feel that the latter is more respectful, since if their view is now seen as problematic, one should not shame them by letting it be known that they felt this way, and furthermore one should not be giving one's own reasons for disagreeing with a Rishon.

I would welcome people's thoughts on this matter.


  1. Is your thought-provoking question intended to take into account the /reader/ of such a polite-or-harsh critique, or is the "respect" only vis-a-vis the critiquer and the Rishon? (If we take into account the reader, should we also take into account the effect of this critique on the Jewish people? If so, then the question is not only about the respectfulness of such a critique, but also about the wisdom of writing such a critique.)

  2. Garnel IronheartJune 16, 2009 at 8:55 PM

    There is a third way, of course. One need not mention the Rishon's position but still critique in a dispassionate way as to why there is disagreement.

  3. >the latter is more respectful, since if their view is now seen as problematic, one should not shame them by letting it be known that they felt this way

    Is it shameful to have been mistaken? Especially if it is explained that they had good reasons to think the way they did.

  4. Phil summed it up well. The Rishon is in Olam HaEmet - approach 1 serves him best as he now knows the truth already. Approach 2 may be considered better for the general public - we don't want them to fall into error, but we also don't want them to lose respect for the Rishonim as a class.

  5. I would say that the first approach is more respectful but it is possible to take the first approach, feel that one is doing something correct and still run into accusations of disrespect. When we explain why someone took an approach, we are usually offering our own opinion of why they took it, and often assuming that if they had only know a, b and c, they would have taken another approach. The writer perceives himself as being straightforward and respectful and is shocked to find that many others perceive this as presumptuous.

  6. Larry: Approach 2 may be considered better for the general public - we don't want them to fall into error, but we also don't want them to lose respect for the Rishonim as a class.

    Ori: Are the Rishonim more worthy of respect than the figures of the Tanakh? Or is modern judgment of the importance of respect for historical figures more valid than the judgment of the people who wrote Shoftim, Shmuel, and Melachim?

    We don't know if Samson, David, and Shlomo held any wrong opinions. We do know they behaved in very shameful ways. Shmuel and Yirmiyahu, IIRC, made sure to preserve the evidence.

    Why is preserving people's respect for the Rambam, for example, more importance that preserving their respect for Shlomo?

  7. I think it is more realistic to state [when making a scientific point] that Rishon Ploni's statement or approach is used by Space-Age Ploni to support such-and-such an hypothesis.

    This is because Rishon Ploni did not live in a scientific age and even if s/he were to amazingly embody the scientific approach, s/he certainly did not have access to the many streams of data that give a comparative veracity to the scientific approach over the approach of natural philosophy. Really, who knows what Rishon Ploni would say with the data s/he could obtain in today's world and with today's validated scientific approaches.

    However, Space Age Ploni is in a different position. It is only responsible that s/he be given clear and sharp criticism just as one would hope to receive oneself if one makes a statement that relevant evidence does not support. This is simply a matter of basic respect for Space Age Ploni. To not do so is to treat the public and also Space Age Ploni as having some type of cognitive or psychological disability. a straightforward disability.

  8. I support the first approach as the most honest.

    Who are you trying to protect by hiding? The Rishon? Why shouldn't he welcome and honest respectful debate, if he was here?

    The person you are talking to? He might get offended? It might shake his face in the infallibility of the sages?

    And if that be the case, maybe you are trying to protect yourself?

  9. Interesting question. The problem is that the Rishonim themselves give little room for mutual respect regarding such matters.
    In the Rambam's view that anyone who believes in כישוף is הסכלים ומחסרי הדעת, ובכלל הנשים והקטנים שאין דעתן שלמה leaves little room to understand both sides.

  10. This question is a very relevant personal topic for me.

    But first, I have to say that there is a certain hashkafa that's developed that is not actually consistent with the approach of the hachamim, in which to even question the words of a rishon is considered an act of grievous hutzpah. This hashkafa: 1)essentially treats the rishonim as infallible demigods; 2) asserts that we cannot really understand a sugya; and 3)maintains that we are incapable of reaching logical conclusions, of weighing and comparing the relative viability of the differing approaches towards that sugya.

    In complete contradistinction to this hashkafa, the Talmud in Chulin 7a says: "from this (ie. the forementioned example) we see that when a student of a Chacham says something regarding halacha, we don't force him to retract (mezihin); others say we don't treat his words as abhorrent (maznihin); and yet others say we don't attribute his words to haughtiness (mazhihin-- see Rashi there)."

  11. Obviously, people are going to pick the first approach. To not is just ridiculous. However, the people that choose the second approach choose to present the topic in this way in order to preserve the general belief in certain areas of Judaism. Like the age of the earth. There are rishonim that hold it is much older than 6000 years, however, this contradicts some of the achronim's opinions and must therefore be hidden because for some reason more respect is given to modern day poskim than rishonim and earlier. Therefore, when a rishon disagrees with an achron (yes I put it in that order on purpose) the general public must not know that a rishon disagreed with this great modern day talmud chacham.


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