Saturday, August 1, 2009

Academic vs. Traditionalist Studies

One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Yosef Tabory, encapsulates the difference between academic and traditionalist forms of study with a single word: Context.

Traditionalist Torah study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages without regard to external factors aside from considering whether they were Rishonim or Acharonim. (Note: An exception seems to be made for the Moreh, which is often disregarded on the grounds that it was written "for kiruv" etc.)

Academic study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages with the aid of examining the context in which they were written. What societal, cultural, intellectual, political factors could have been involved, if any?

The traditionalist approach regards the latter as near-heretical. There is a letter from R. Dovid Cohen in an old issue of The Journal of Halachah where he makes this point (I don't have it with me, if anyone can send it to me I will include it in this post.)

This difference lies behind some (but not all) aspects of the dispute over Rashi's view of corporeality. It is also the reason why some people objected to my "Jumping Elephant" essay. And it is also the reason why some people will be objecting to my forthcoming essay on comparing the development of the shiur of kezayis in Sefarad and Ashkenaz - in which a significant factor is that there were no olives in Ashkenaz.

Note that I am not passing a value judgment on these different approaches. If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior. But I am not judging which approach is more valuable from other perspectives, such as for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah or for reaching psak. There is a fascinating exchange in the current issue of Hakirah on topic of whether calling a form of study non-historical means that it lacks value.

There are other significant differences between traditionalist and academic modes of study, but the concept of context is very significant.

19 comments:

  1. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Thank you for giving us another post. I was hoping that since this post was dedicated to defining the machloketh betweehn "traditionalist and Academic" you could help me by explaining, in whatever detail you can, your methodology of History. History and the Mesorah are both things that I have spent time thinking about, and since you seem to be making rather bold moves using "academic/ historical" evidence, I hope that for my understanding of your posts prior and "post" this point you would share your criteria for what is valid historically and what is not and what your thoughts on the way the Mesorah fits into this is. I am sorry if this seems like a huge undertaking, but if we are to understand what you are trying to say and how you are trying to say it, I think the illumination of your historical method is important.

    Thanks again,
    Jake Adler

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  2. I assume that you mean orthodox academia. I mean things like the DH and other such "academic works" would not fall into this category.

    The differences you are talking about is basically, were the rishonim working with the knowledge available to them, or did they somehow know everything. The traditionalist school assumes that the rishonim and achronim somehow knew everything and can not be questioned. However, the academic view would say that they worked with the knowledge they possessed and since Tosofs never saw an elephant or the people in ashkenaz never saw an olive they tried to figure out their features with the tools at hand.

    Isn't this just the same argument as mysticism vs rationalism in the sense that mysticism is we assume the Rabbis know everything and rationalism is that they were fallible? Or am I missing the boat?

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  3. "Note that I am not passing a value judgment on these different approaches. If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior"

    Your talking out of both sides of your mouth.

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  4. No, I am not, and this is exactly what the dispute in Hakirah between Shapiro and Buchman is all about. There are values beyond historical truth.

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  5. E-man - you're right that it fundamentally relates to the rationalism vs. mysticism debate, I'm just presenting it from a different angle.

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  6. Rabbi Slifkin,
    I greatly appreciate and admire your honesty and perseverance.

    Four questions: Are you saying that Rashi was definitely a corporealist, or only that the absence of absolutely unambiguous anti-corporealist statements in Rashi's commentaries leaves open the possibility that he was a corporealist?

    Second: Is it not possible that even though some "chakhmei tzorfat" were corporealists they were not "Chakhamim" in the true sense of the word? I am sure you have encountered individuals who people would call "talmidei chakhamim" when in truth there strength lies in "girsa" not "iyun" and they are not "truly" chakhamim.

    Three: Do you believe that corporealism is clearly and absolutely heretical, or do you think it is a possibility?

    Four: Do you believe the chakhmei haYishmaelim were the source of the chakhmei Sfarad's strong stance against corporealism?

    Thank you,
    Yehuda Rapoport

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  7. "There is a letter from R. Dovid Cohen in an old issue of The Journal of Halachah where he makes this point"

    I have the issue somewhere in my house.

    Part of it is scanned here:

    http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2006/08/what-does-maskilic-mean.html

    Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society vol XV, pg. 120 (New York: 1988)

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  8. Yehudah, here are my responses to your four questions:

    Are you saying that Rashi was definitely a corporealist, or only that the absence of absolutely unambiguous anti-corporealist statements in Rashi's commentaries leaves open the possibility that he was a corporealist?

    Neither. I am saying that, based on the situation in France and the five categories of evidence that I brought, it is probable that he was a corporealist.

    Second: Is it not possible that even though some "chakhmei tzorfat" were corporealists they were not "Chakhamim" in the true sense of the word? I am sure you have encountered individuals who people would call "talmidei chakhamim" when in truth there strength lies in "girsa" not "iyun" and they are not "truly" chakhamim.

    Is this the "no true Scotsman" fallacy?
    I know people who are revered as Gedolim and truly are terrific lamdanim. However when it comes to philosophy they are very unsophisticated. So are they chachomim or not?
    In Ramban's letter, he does not distinguish between corporealists and other Torah scholars, relating to the presumed corporealists with extreme respect. And don't forget Raavad's description of their being "greater than Rambam."

    Three: Do you believe that corporealism is clearly and absolutely heretical, or do you think it is a possibility?

    I think that you are phrasing the question wrong. Do I think that it is possibly true? No, of course not. Whether it is "absolutely" heretical is something that I will address in my follow-up essay.

    Four: Do you believe the chakhmei haYishmaelim were the source of the chakhmei Sfarad's strong stance against corporealism?

    I do not know.

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  9. "If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior. But I am not judging which approach is more valuable from other perspectives,... for reaching psak."

    Do you really believe Halacha is based upon something other than the absolute truth, as much as it can possibly be determined?

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  10. I think part of the problem people have accepting the possibility that Rashi held a corporeal conception of God is that we are all so conditioned that it is not only a heretical belief but a foolish and infantile one.

    But is it? That was the Rambam's view, but one of his 19th century critics, Shadal, held that there is no question that our ancestors in the time of Tanach, at least, held a corporeal view of God.

    While the Rambam's view of why a corporeal God is infantile is well known, consider the following: an incorporeal God doesn't love man, doesn't listen to our prayers, isn't our father or our king, doesn't hate injustice, etc. This is why there are those who did not or could not conceive of God as totally incorporeal; it's almost another way of saying, in this view, that he doesn't really exist at all.

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  11. Do you really believe Halacha is based upon something other than the absolute truth, as much as it can possibly be determined?


    Absolutely. Look at Tanur shel Achnai. And the Chazon Ish reportedly stated that even if we were to find Moshe Rabbeinu's sefer Torah, we would not change ours to match it.

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  12. Mississipi Fred - you are absolutely right.

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  13. "Absolutely. Look at Tanur shel Achnai."

    I have no idea what you are talking about. And yes I do know the gemara of Tanur Achnai.

    "And the Chazon Ish reportedly stated that even if we were to find Moshe Rabbeinu's sefer Torah, we would not change ours to match it."

    Apples and oranges.

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  14. Tannur Achnai shows (acc. to several interpretations) that even if God shows that we are wrong, we have our own way of determining halachah and we disregard His opinion.

    The Chazon Ish is extremely relevant - the point is that halachah follows its own methodology - in this case, majority - regardless of another methodology that could be more accurate.

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  15. There's an excellent article on this in an old issue of Tradition, extensively based on the Chazon Ish, and also discussing his opposition to using manuscript research. The point of the article is that halachah is NOT "based upon the absolute truth, as much as it can possibly be determined." Halachah has its own system of reaching conclusions. I also elaborate on this in the last chapter of Sacred Monsters.

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  16. "Proper comprehension of many concepts discussed in this tractate requires a clear understanding of the civilization in which the Talmudic sages lived, as well as of the idol worshipers to whom they referred."
    -- from the introduction of the Schottenstein Talmud, tractate Avodah Zara.

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  17. Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

    >>"I think part of the problem people have accepting the possibility that Rashi held a corporeal conception of God is that we are all so conditioned that it is not only a heretical belief but a foolish and infantile one.
    But is it?"<<

    Corporeality has many levels to it. Not all of them are infantile in the slightest. The worst level--flesh and blood corporeality--is something that Rashi takes pains to RULE OUT, and Rabbi Slifkin himself acknowledged this.
    So I don't think the resistance is coming from attributing Rashi with infantile conceptions of G-d.


    >>"While the Rambam's view of why a corporeal God is infantile is well known,"<<

    This is an oversimplification.
    The Guide, Book I chaps. 35-60 goes through various levels of removing corporeality from G-d. Not all of them are infantile in the slightest.


    >>"consider the following: an incorporeal God doesn't love man, doesn't listen to our prayers, isn't our father or our king, doesn't hate injustice, etc. This is why there are those who did not or could not conceive of God as totally incorporeal;"<<

    SO you've just undermined your own argument. I think it's reasonable to assume that most people commenting here--even after the Rambam's revolution--do not abstract G-d to that level.
    In fact, the ikkar just specifies NO BODY:
    והיסוד השלישי שלילת הגשמות ממנו. והוא, שזה האחד אינו גוף ולא כח בגוף, ולא יארעוהו מאורעות הגופים כגון התנועה והמנוחה, לא בעצם ולא במקרה.


    >>"it's almost another way of saying, in this view, that he doesn't really exist at all."

    Not really.
    See the Guide, Book I chapter 46
    [
    ההודעה על ה' - מציאותו ולא מהותו]

    כך אירע בהודעת ה' יתהדר ויתרומם
    להמון בכל ספרי הנביאים וגם בתורה, כאשר הביא אותנו הצורך להורות ולהדריך 10 את כולם על מציאותו יתעלה, וכי לו השלמויות כולן, כלומר: שאינו רק מצוי בלבד, כמו שהארץ מצויה והשמים מצוים, אלא מצוי, חי, יודע 11, יכול, פועל, ושאר מה שראוי להאמין 12 במציאותו ויתבאר זה. 13

    Really, this entire chapter 46 is critical for understanding what the problem with corporeality was for the Rambam.

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  18. The entire endeavor to "discover" a controversial position in the teachings of a Torah scholar doesn't strike me as reflecting awe of our Sage either.

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  19. I think that respecting people means trying to ascertain what they really meant. It's not an attempt to make them controversial, it's an attempt to find out what they really meant, not what would make them look good according to current standards.

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