Monday, June 8, 2009

The Sun's Path at Night, part III

Most non-rationalists, when confronted with the Gemara about the sun's path at night, immediately respond by citing Rabbeinu Tam's view that the Sages of Israel were actually correct. Over at Divrei Chaim, I have been pointing out that the overwhelming majority of Rishonim, as well as a number of significant Acharonim, accept the Gemara at face value, that the Sages of Israel were mistaken. To his credit, R' Chaim does not quibble with this, or suppress me from stating it, or claim that it is forbidden to subscribe to such a view. However, he does suggest that one should follow the consensus of the Torah world which is to follow the opposing view.

I have two related observations to make about this.

First of all, R' Chaim's approach is very much atypical. The standard approach in the non-rationalist camp is to deny that historically there was a strong rationalist approach and that most Rishonim explained this Gemara k'pshuto.

Second, I think that his idea, that today's Torah authorities can reject the consensus of the overwhelming majority of Rishonim, would come as a shock to many people in that world. They have the idea that they are continuing what was the normative approach to Judaism throughout the ages. In fact I think that it is partly due to this that many people will deny that the majority of Rishonim said that Chazal erred scientifically. They would not be comfortable with the idea that they are going against most Rishonim.

The question is, what does the word "mesorah" mean, and what do people think it means? I think that most people think that it means "the normative approach to Judaism throughout the ages" - the "tradition" i.e. that which has been traditionally, historically, held. But what many people are actually using it to mean is "hachra'ah" - the decision of recent and contemporary authorities as to what is acceptable. Thus it can happen that an innovation, rather than a tradition, can be termed "the mesorah."


  1. “They have the idea that they are continuing what was the normative approach to Judaism throughout the ages.”

    So much so that we are supposed to believe that the avos kept kol hatorah exactly as we do today, with all the mitzvos d’rabanan and accreted layers of commentary.

    “Thus it can happen that an innovation, rather than a tradition, can be termed "the mesorah."”

    As I understand it, the mesorah gets its authority from being passed down through the generations. It is followed because it represents “authentic” Judaism. It seems you are suggesting that people assume that everything they practice is part of the mesorah, regardless of a practice's actual origins.

    I’ve noticed that my initial reaction to hearing a halachah I haven’t come across before is ‘how did that get started,’ while most people’s reaction is to accept it as authoritative because it says so in a sefer, and therefore is part of the mesorah, presumably all the way back to Moshe at Har Sinai.

  2. Aren't you, in fact, subtly appealing to the same notion of Mesorah with your emphasis on the difference between the Rishonim and Achronim in this matter, when in fact many Rishonim and Achronim have maintained that outside influences, mainly Greco-Arabic Philosophy, played a major role in the rationalist ideology? Haven't you yourself noted that it is not at all clear that Chazal were "rationalists" while it is clear that the Rambam rejected things which until then had been accepted?

    Just because many Rishonim held a different position doesn't mean that the general consensus of the Achronim represents a deviations from Chazal.

  3. My point is that it is the anti-rationalists who keep using the term "mesorah," when it doesn't mean at all what they are implying it to mean.

    While the Rishonim were certainly influenced by Greek philosophy and Moslem culture, I still think that in many cases - especially the Torah/science issue, which is my particular interest - they were much closer to Chazal's approach than were the Acharonim.

  4. Information Question: Given the last line [אמר רבי ונראין דבריהן מדברינו] It seems to say that we should go by the scholars of the nations rather than by Chazal because the scholars can be supported by the physical "evidence" of steam from wells..

    So, it seems, that Rebbi prefers the scholars of the nations over other Chazal.

    Can you clarify how it gets read differently?

  5. R' Slifkin,

    In the DivreiChaim blog comments, you commented that the GR"A held the world to be flat. Could you elaborate? It seems quite incredible, since he was born well after the circumnavigation of the earth (he was alive during the American Revolution)and despite having a mystical orientation, was known to be well-versed in scientific matters.

  6. Gary - They get around that phrase by saying that it either means "they have better arguments, but we are nevertheless correct" or "their approach seems to the eye to be more correct, i.e. in the physical sense, but ours is actually correct in the metaphysical sense."

    Tzurah - The Gra is cited in Gilyoni HaShas. If you email me, I can send it to you. The same view was also stated by Shvus Yaakov, who lived around the same time.

  7. Here is where I (just now) blogged about that Gra and Shevus Yaakov:


  8. Here is a link to R. Gil Student's discussion of the opinions concerning the shape of the earth(quoting from R. Menachem Kasher zt'l):

  9. In an interview quoted today on the Jewish Press Blog, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks responded to the question of "influence", as follows:

    "Kadosh means distinct. Tzion means that as well. Am Segulah is a distinctive nation.
    Most people think that to be a humanist means to be universal. I don’t, as I wrote in 'Dignity of Difference.' When Monet is at his most French, then everyone can enjoy him. When Tolstoy is at his most Russian, he’s at his best...Let’s have a little pride in who we are. I think Hakadosh Baruch Hu meant for us to be a blessing to the world."

    Accepting R. Avroham ben Harambam would not be a contradiction to the above, first, because according to that shittah, it's a gemerah! Second, R. Sacks himself quoted the following (I, personally, am perfectly comfortable with traditional meforshim, but it's a fascinating quote):

    In his book Hameassef, Rabbenu Hai Gaon of blessed memory made use of the work of the Arabs . . . and he also used a stanza from a love song to clarify a saying of our rabbis of blessed memory . . . He also quotes the Koran and the Hadith. And so did R. Saadia Gaon of blessed memory before him in his Arabic commentaries, and for this reason the sages said, "Whoever says a word of wisdom, even among the nations of the world, is called a sage" . . . and in this connection the Nagid, after citing many Christian explanations, recounts . . . that R. Hai Gaon instructed R. Matzliach ben Albassek, the dayan of Sicily, to go to the head of the Christian church [the Nestorian patriarch] to ask him what he knew regarding the interpretation of a biblical verse, whose meaning was in doubt. When he saw that R. Matzliach was reluctant to go, he rebuked him and said, "Our ancestors and pious predecessors would ask the adherents of other faiths, and even shepherds, as is known, for guidance on the meaning or explanation of a word." [63] 93

  10. Learning literal meanings of obscure words through the method of philology is not a strong indication of significant cultural influence between cultures.
    Think of the many french words incorporated in English usage. Does this imply heavy French influence on American culture in general?

    It merely causes grounds for suspicion that must be confirmed with more direct evidence.


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