Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom

Part 7: Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam

Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s “Letter concerning the Aggados of Chazal” is the most famous (albeit far from unique) source concerning Chazal’s errancy in scientific matters:
…We are not obliged, on account of the great superiority of the sages of the Talmud, and their expertise in their explanations of the Torah and its details, and the truth of their sayings in the explanation of its general principles and details, to defend them and uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy, or to believe them [in those matters] as we believe them regarding the explanation of the Torah… we find that they made medicinally related statements in the Gemara which have not been justified or validated...

Lest one think that R. Schmeltzer does not sufficiently respect Rabbeinu Avraham as part of the mesorah, he quotes from a different letter of Rabbeinu Avraham on p. 26 and on p. 30 describing the need to accept the wisdom of Chazal’s statements, as the first source enlisted in the chapter on the need to accept all the words of Chazal, whether in halachah or aggadah. R. Schmeltzer is making it clear that he does not consider Rabbeinu Avraham to be a figure outside of the mesorah. Incidentally, this citation from Rabbeinu Avraham has nothing to do with prohibiting doubting any statement of Chazal, as R. Schmeltzer claims; instead it is quite clearly discussing ethical and homiletic teachings.

But with regard to the famous essay from Rabbeinu Avraham concerning the potential errors of Chazal’s scientific statements, which should surely be a central point of discussion in a book on this topic, it is only relegated to a footnote. And in this footnote (p. 224 note 5), R. Schmeltzer, following Rav Moshe Shapiro, claims that the essay is a forgery! While the superficial language of the footnote may indicate that he is merely raising questions as to its authenticity, the clear message of the footnote, and indeed of the wider context, is that it is and must be a forgery. After all, he has already established that someone who doubts anything in the Gemara, even scientific statements, is liable for the death penalty!

But not only is there no reason to conclude that the essay must be a forgery, there is not even any serious reason to doubt its authenticity, especially the section regarding Chazal’s knowledge about science.

In 1974, Rabbi Elazar Hurvitz published fragments from the Cairo Genizah of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s essay in its original Judeo-Arabic (dating possibly back to the 14th century), along with an overview of the various manuscripts available and their citations by other Torah authorities. Parts of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s essay are quoted in Hebrew translation by 16th century authors, including R. Vidal Tzarfati in the introduction to his Imrei Yosher commentary on Midrash Rabbah and R. Avraham Ibn Migash in his Kevod Elokim. There are similarities between the essay and some of Rabbeinu Avraham’s other writings; significantly, Rabbeinu Avraham writes in his Milchamos Hashem that the Jewish sages conceded to the gentile sages regarding the path of the sun at night. It is also completely consistent with Rambam’s own views.

R. Schmeltzer argues that the manuscript’s authenticity is in doubt in light of the fact that the 1836 publication of a Hebrew translation includes a fraudulent signature at the end of it, and that various manuscripts contain differences. But this is simply nonsense. The differences in the manuscripts reflect obvious kabbalistic additions from the copyist, Rabbi Avraham Eilburg of Braunschweig. The various manuscripts of Hebrew translations that exist, some dating from the 16th century, are all fundamentally the same – a fraudulent signature that was added to one of them does not undermine the manuscript’s authenticity. Thus, we have multiple copies of the manuscript from different sources, some dating as far as the fourteenth century, which are all fundamentally similar, which are entirely consistent with the other writings of Rabbeinu Avraham and his father Rambam, and which have been repeatedly published and widely accepted as being Rabbeinu Avraham’s view (even by those who strongly disputed the actual position) without anyone batting an eyelash. Then all of a sudden, following the ban on my books, some non-specialists claim that a recent maskil substantially changed the text! Many have disputed Rabbeinu Avraham’s approach, but I do not know of anyone who claimed that he never wrote it; Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote that he does not know if anyone is even entitled to dispute it. And again, since the fundamental point of contention here is regarding Rabbeinu Avraham’s views concerning Chazal being mistaken in science, the entire discussion is irrelevant, since Rabbeinu Avraham reiterates in Milchamos Hashem that Chazal erred in this matter and R. Yehudah HaNasi conceded their error.

R. Schmeltzer quotes Rav Aharon Kotler as saying that the approach of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is not our mesorah. If this means that it is not the accepted approach in the charedi yeshivah world today, I do not deny that. But with regard to whether they are part of any mesorah – part of a legitimate tradition handed down through the generations – Rav Yitzchak Herzog, a rebbe of Rav Elyashiv, writes that “the attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages...” Certainly many authorities have been of the opinion that it was very much part of the mesorah. It has been traditionally printed in the Ein Yaakov and quoted in dozens of other works, even in the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud, and was recently cited approvingly in a Yated Ne’eman article about Rabbeinu Avraham. Is it reasonable to suppose that all these people have been utterly unaware of the true nature of the mesorah, or is it more reasonable to suppose that R. Schmeltzer is defining the mesorah far more narrowly than the reality?

In any case, R. Schmeltzer co-opts the view of Rav Kotler as though he was likewise claiming it to be a forgery. There are absolutely no serious grounds for considering it a forgery, and in any case Rabbeinu Avraham reiterates the same view in his other writings, and furthermore it has been widely accepted as the legitimate view of Rabbeinu Avraham for hundreds of years. To dismiss it as a heretical forgery in a footnote is unacceptable.

41 comments:

  1. Mesorah is not what you think, and forgery is not what you think.

    The Mesorah, in the view of the Mesorah (...), cannot be learned from books. It is an approach, a state of mind. Some have the Mesorah and others do not. You get it by making yourself a Rav who has the Mesorah, by studying with him and serving him. So, you, Rav Slifkin, do not have the Mesorah no matter how many books you read, and so you cannot say anything about what is or is not in the Mesorah. In their view.

    Saying that a book by a great author must be a forgerty is a nice way of saying that the author is wrong.

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  2. Check out this post: The Sun's Path at Night Part III regarding the curious definition that people use of mesorah.

    (Incidentally, my approach is not just from books, I heard it from my rebbe in these things, Rav Aryeh Carmell z"l and others.)

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  3. "R. Schmeltzer argues that the manuscript’s authenticity is in doubt in light of the fact that the 1836 publication of a Hebrew translation includes a fraudulent signature at the end of it, and that various manuscripts contain differences. But this is simply nonsense. The differences in the manuscripts reflect obvious kabbalistic additions from the copyist, Rabbi Avraham Eilburg of Braunschweig. The various manuscripts of Hebrew translations that exist, some dating from the 16th century, are all fundamentally the same – a fraudulent signature that was added to one of them does not undermine the manuscript’s authenticity."

    R Slifkin,

    shalom uvracha. This is a small point, but you seem to be agreeing that the signature if fraudulent. My impression from what I've read online is that the copyist signed the manuscript, and that people are claiming he intended to be fraudulent, in reality all he did was try to make clear who authored thr maamar, with no intention of deception. So for example, assuming I sent you an email with no name attached, and gave you permission to post it, and you posted it and appended my name, is that intent to deceive and a "Fraudulent" signature??? Strikes me as much ado about nothing.

    Correct me if I'm wrong and there is really fraud involved.

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  4. I think you are correct, thanks for clarifying this. (But please in future sign your name or at least a pseudonym to your comment.)

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  5. I see that you are aware, but perhaps only partly. Know that "the Mesorah" is not interested in historical truth. It is all about "now". It is about preserving a state of being, an authentic consciousness of chosenness. It is about the awesome responsibility of carrying "the Mesorah".

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  6. An "authentic consciousness of chosenness"?! What do those words actually mean? Especially the word "authentic"!

    The "mesorah," as certain people are using the word, means "the way we choose to approach things." That's fine, as long as it's not confused with the idea of mesorah as "the traditional, historical Jewish way of approaching things." Which is what Chaim B'Emunasam claims.

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  7. What are the odds that R' Schmeltzer is reading these posts? Should one of us try to increase those odds?

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  8. What are the odds that R' Schmeltzer is reading these posts?

    I don't know, but my guess is that the odds are slim.

    Should one of us try to increase those odds?

    Sure, but I doubt it would do any good.

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  9. I am trying to explain the thinking of those you are confronting. Any historical claims from their side are only words. They are not interested in actual historical truth. If history is invoked, it is to strenghten authority.

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  10. They are not interested in actual historical truth. If history is invoked, it is to strenghten authority.

    This is exactly the same idea which Rabbi Slifkin found so peculiar in his previous post, i.e. that anything goes for 'kiruv' or 'strengthening Yiddishkeit'.

    I think this phenomenon needs to be analyzed more deeply, since the problem goes deeper than simply the age-old question of whether the ends justify the means. Here we have to ask, what are the ends? 'Kiruv' to what? 'Yiddishkeit' how defined? It seems pretty clear that Schmeltzer &co. are interested in kiruv to mechanical observance of ritual mitzvos, keeping kosher, putting on tefillin, not touching muktzeh on Shabbos, etc., along with a certain vague 'mystical' attitude towards the world, and don't really care all that much about the details of a person's relationship with G-d.

    Someone has to say it clearly already: Schmeltzer and his gang are not really religious people in any meaningful sense. A religious person is one who confronts and relates to the real G-d Who created the real world, the world which operates according to quantum mechanics and modern chemistry, the world which is billions of light-years in size and (therefore) billions of years old. Only people who aren't really interested in the Gadlus HaBorei can run away to a fantasy world where "of course, Chazal knew everything about everything". Where is a sense of awe and wonder, and most of all, humility? Perhaps this book is beneath contempt and not worthy of the attention it is being paid, but the background for it is the most important (and scary) thing going on in today's Jewish world. How can we not stand up to these distorters of everything Judaism stands for?

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  11. Both the Haredi and the Reform movement are 'reform'. The latter deny mitzvoth, the former deny rational and major Rishonim hashkafah. Both of them are Judaism's extreme response to modernity. The sad thing is that today most Haredim live in cognitive dissonance. They enjoy all modern technology but want to deny the science behind it. They would claim that while Rishonim didn’t know Kabalah they did know modern science.

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  12. >>"The differences in the manuscripts reflect obvious kabbalistic additions from the copyist, Rabbi Avraham Eilburg of Braunschweig. The various manuscripts of Hebrew translations that exist, some dating from the 16th century, are all fundamentally the same– a fraudulent signature that was added to one of them does not undermine the manuscript’s authenticity."

    This minimalist assessment of the differences between the manuscripts is sharply contested.
    See the topic discussed here:
    http://www.frumteens.com/topic.php?topic_id=8660&forum_id=59&topic_title=The+Rambam+and+Rebeinu+Avrohom%27s+Opinion&forum_title=Torah+and+Science&M=0

    "In the JTS collection in New York (2324.1), there is a different version of the Ksav Yad, in which it says after one paragraph, ad kan leshon HaRav (Avraham). The rest was written by someone called Eliezer Eilenburg, a kabbalist who followed R. Avraham Abulafia's teachings. The ma'amar is interspersed with kabbalistic references and a mention of R. Abulafiah's Imrei Shefer, which obviously were never written by R. Avraham. The manuscript, in fact, is cataloged under the authorship of Eliezer Eilenburg, while the title remains Ma'amar al Drashos Chazal. Everywhere that the Ein Yaakov version says “avi mori”, indicating was written by the Rambam's son, this version instead says “HaRav Moreh Tzeddek”, indicating it was someone else.

    There is also a sefer Imrei Yosher on Midrash which quotes the ma'amar of R. Avraham, and does not contain the controversial section.

    The Arabic section found in the library of Westminster College in England also does not contain that section. (Regrettably, it is not a complete version, so it cannot offer conclusive proof.) "


    Rabbi Slifkin, have you compared all the known manuscripts yourself to see if the controversial section under discussion is indeed present in all the versions? Are you just conveying the opinion of others?

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  13. I am trying to explain the thinking of those you are confronting. Any historical claims from their side are only words. They are not interested in actual historical truth. If history is invoked, it is to strenghten authority.

    Moshe Raphael, I am well aware of this. But since they masquerade it as historical truth, they must be exposed and denounced.

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  14. Isaac - I did not study the manuscripts myself. But I am relying on very, very reliable researchers, who have no vested interest either way.

    The fact that Eilenburg's manuscript contains kabbalistic sections and changes R. Avraham's name is simply a reflection of the fact that it was Eilenburg's manuscript!

    And the fact that in one Arabic manuscript, the "controversial" section is not found, is utterly irrelevant in light of the fact that it is only a fragment. FrumTeens/R. Yaakov Shapiro says it makes it not "conclusive proof" - it's not even any evidence at all.

    And the fact that Imrei Yosher (a relatively recent sefer, I think) did not quote that part merely means that he only quoted parts of it! And since this section is considered by some to be controversial, we should not be surprised that some did not quote it. I can imagine, 100 years from now, people claiming that the fact that Artscroll's Shemesh Marpeh does not include HIrsch's letters on science is reason to believe that they are not authentic...

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  15. Schmeltzer and his gang are not really religious people in any meaningful sense.

    Ephraim, I must firmly disagree. The fact that they do not match your approach to religion does not mean that they are not religious! You're talking just like them!

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  16. "I can imagine, 100 years from now, people claiming that the fact that Artscroll's Shemesh Marpeh does not include HIrsch's letters on science is reason to believe that they are not authentic..."

    There is nothing to "claim", that is exactly why it excluded. R Schwab who was famously against banning books, and anything that look like censorship, demanded those letters not be included on basis of their authenticy. If R Schwab considered it non-authentic, it's good enough for me.

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  17. That is ABSOLUTELY not the reason why R. Schwab said not to exclude them. I will be addressing this in the next post.

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  18. The fact that they do not match your approach to religion does not mean that they are not religious! You're talking just like them!

    No I'm not. The most important word in my comment was 'real'. These people are not interested in relating to the real world. As another commenter said:

    They enjoy all modern technology but want to deny the science behind it.

    Even this is an understatement. They may even acknowledge in words the truth of many modern scientific ideas, but they fail to grasp their significance, or the obvious fact that no one in ancient times was even equipped to start thinking about these subjects or investigating them.

    If someone wants to give an alternative psychological understanding of these people, I'm willing to listen, but the way it looks to me (based not just on this blog but on people I know personally) is that they have an undeveloped interest in the *real* world. If you don't want to call that "non-religious", and prefer to just call it "weird", OK, but something is wrong here.

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  19. I understand your objection to their way of thinking, but "non-religious" is simply the wrong adjective.

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  20. OK, I'm not going to make the wording an issue, but I'll just emphasize that I said 'religious', not 'frum'. I *know* they're frum!

    The point is that they're not interested in *reality*, and this illustrates itself in a lot of kiruv, which ends at the point of technical mitzva observance, even though that's where real kiruv should begin. I think there are a lot more "ba'alei teshuva" out there who get disappointed with the philosophy they unknowingly bought into than people want to admit.

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  21. "In their view."
    "Any historical claims from their side are only words."
    "If someone wants to give an alternative psychological understanding of these people, ... they have an undeveloped interest in the *real* world. "

    Let's be real careful throwing around generic pronouns like "them." We don't want our paintbrush to be to be painting too broadly.

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  22. Wow, this book by R Schmeltzer sure is a doozy. If I had to apply my dan l'kaf zchus to the max, I'd want to say that in reality, he's trying to pull off the greatest coup since Alan Sokal.
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair

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  23. One basic question, how many original arabic manuscripts contain the "controversial" part, and how many do not?

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  24. > The "mesorah," as certain people are using the word, means "the way we choose to approach things."

    That’s certainly not what I learned about the mesorah in yeshivah. The mesorah is considered authoritative specifically because it is authentic historical Judaism as passed from father to son and rebbe to talmud all the way back to when the B’nei Yisroel stood at Har Sinai.

    > Both the Haredi and the Reform movement are 'reform'.

    And the chareidim did it first. Chareidi Judaism today is largely based on chassidus (even in the yeshivish world) and chassidus was the first jewish reform movement in modern times.

    > they have an undeveloped interest in the *real* world

    Its discouraged by the structure of the belief system. I’m sure there are individuals who may be interested in one scientific discipline or another, but as a whole the society assumes that everything of value is to be found in the Torah. Science is at best a weak reflection of Torah truths and more likely to be a perversion of them. I remember as a little kid being taught that scientists think the world is millions of years old, but of course we know better. Those silly scientists! Unfortunately this attitude is still held by many (most?) when they become adults. Try telling a chareidi person that the sun is going to expand and incinerate all the planets few billion years. In my experience they’ll laugh, because they’ve been conditioned to find anything involving large numbers to be silly. And the ultimate fate of the sun isn’t even hashkaficly problematic the way the age of the Earth is.

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  25. If I recall correctly, you introduced this book with someone (either a critic or Shmelczer himself) contending that this book approaches Judaism from various angles, and does not lean one way or the other.

    Yet here is a prime example of this falsehood. The book takes an alternate approach and tries to do away with it. Rather than take it seriously, Shmelczer molds it into one approach to fit his agenda. And this is not the first example you've cited.

    If someone has a certain approach to Judaism, that's fine. But to say the book considers multiple approaches, then to go and disregard other approaches is unacceptable. It doesn't matter if the approach is rationalist, charedi, or whatever other name you have for it. If you shoehorn approaches into one direction, the book is NOT coming from various approaches.

    I find it appalling that this book is claimed to be open-minded, when the text itself is fundamentally not so.

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  26. Shemuel: The majority of manuscripts do not contain that paragraph.

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  27. Jake: Not according to my information.

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  28. Ephraim,

    "The most important word in my comment was 'real'. These people are not interested in relating to the real world."

    Within a chareidi outlook, the physical world is not the real world. The true reality is that which is described in the Torah, and physical reality is only an "illustration" of it. And you will always find discrepancies between an object and its illustration.

    I heard this idea presented by R' Reuven Leuchter (head of Ner L'Elef and talmid of R. Shlomo Wolbe zt"l) in a recording of one of his shiurim. I find this approach difficult to swallow, coming as I do from an MO background. But I would guess that R' Schmeltzer ascribes to such a view as well.

    But the above consideration is beside the point with respect to the discussion at hand. No matter what hashkafa R' Schmeltzer holds by, it does not excuse the purposeful twisting of sources that he seems to perpetrate in his book.

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  29. "If someone wants to give an alternative psychological understanding of these people, I'm willing to listen, but the way it looks to me (based not just on this blog but on people I know personally) is that they have an undeveloped interest in the *real* world. If you don't want to call that "non-religious", and prefer to just call it "weird", OK, but something is wrong here."

    This is a really fascinating comment.

    I'm not sure where to begin, but what you wrote is just about the opposite of what I would expect a "real religious" person to write in the 60s (when it was popular).

    The monks who insist that all of this world is an illusion in the sand, do not care about "reality".

    When this world is just a figment of imagination and the only true reality is G-d, then what difference does science or rationalism make?

    Many would argue that the "real religious" people are those who are not snagged by the impressive illusion that we are surrounded by, and can instead can see through the looking glass and perceive the TRUE reality.

    Personally, I think both approaches have merits as long as they are balanced and not taken to extremes.

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  30. C'mon Natan, is it existed in as little as one questionable source you still claim its authentic. And if it didn't exist at all, it wouldn't either affect your stance one bit.

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  31. "real man", you are quite correct that if it didn't exist at all, it would not affect my stance one bit; I would still insist that there are no mud-mice. But it is precisely because of this that the first part of your claim, that if it existed in as little as one questionable source I would still claim it to be authentic, is false. I don't need it to be true in order to take this approach. Unlike R. Schmeltzer, I have no problem in admitting when Rishonim take an approach that I can't accept. I would only defend RAbH as being authentic if it indeed appeared to be unquestionably so. Which it does - in the eyes of every non-charedi researcher, and most charedi researchers too.

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  32. "That is ABSOLUTELY not the reason why R. Schwab said not to exclude them. I will be addressing this in the next post."

    Dr. Kaplan's conversation with RSS, quoted by Dr. Shapiro in "TUM in Shadow of Hitler" illustrates this(which I assume you will discuss).

    IIRC, R. Schwab includes R. Avroham b. Harambam as a general reference on understanding Aggados in his second(revised) essay on Jewish Chronology. If he held that all or parts of it were forged, he would have noted it.

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  33. "I have no problem in admitting when Rishonim take an approach that I can't accept."

    So why quote them at all? Why not just say this is peshat in this chazal as I see through the lens of current science/understanding? This is peshat in these pesukim as considering the consensus of modern science? Why do you need a rational beis medrash? Why bother arguing with chazal?

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  34. So why quote them at all?

    Because the way that Judaism works is that the more traditional basis one has for one's view, the greater acceptability it has and will attain.

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  35. And, of course, the same thing is true for R. Schmeltzer, though he wouldn't admit it, even to himself. No matter what the RIshonim do or would say about the Gemara containing scientific errors, he would not accept their view. So why bother claiming the support of traditional authorities? Because that is how one's view gains legitimacy.

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  36. > Both the Haredi and the Reform movement are 'reform'.

    And the chareidim did it first. Chareidi Judaism today is largely based on chassidus (even in the yeshivish world) and chassidus was the first jewish reform movement in modern times.

    This was foreseen by the GR"A. Chassidut is the heresy of Simcha, using the GR"A's terminology, based on Succah 48b. Reform/Chiloniut is the heresy of Sasson. The split was caused by modernity, in the words of אליהו (here in the comments). Indeed.

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  37. One commenter:

    Within a chareidi outlook, the physical world is not the real world.

    Another:

    The monks who insist that all of this world is an illusion in the sand, do not care about "reality".

    When this world is just a figment of imagination and the only true reality is G-d, then what difference does science or rationalism make?


    I'm quite aware of this kind of talk, and am old enough to remember the 60's when it was more popular, as was mentioned.

    The reason why this is irrelevant can be put in two equivalent ways, as far as I'm concerned:

    1)The people who talk this way are always unmasked as having at least a normal interest in "gashmius". Think all the the rich gurus, etc., and extend that to the palace-dwellers of Monsey. (BTW, I heard recently a shmooze from Rav Dan Segal, certainly not suspect as a Slifkin sympathizer, in which he pokes fun at people who talk about mesirus nefesh yet cringe at the thought of having a filling at the dentist.)

    2)In a more abstract sense, Judaism and the whole halachic system are a reaction to this unworldliness, and anyone who uses the word religion in the sense of total withdrawal from physical reality is not using it in a Jewish sense.

    To summarize how I feel in a sentence, I am extreeeemely skeptical of people who have great interest in "olamos elyonos" and none in the world around them.

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  38. Chassidut is the heresy of Simcha, using the GR"A's terminology, based on Succah 48b. Reform/Chiloniut is the heresy of Sasson.

    Pretty cryptic. Care to explain a bit?

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  39. I think I'll just say it again, as clearly as possible:

    We're talking about people who are DEAD. Not interested in ANYTHING. I know because I know lots of them.

    Good enough?

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  40. Pretty cryptic. Care to explain a bit?

    The Gemara brings a "discussion" between two heretics, Simcha and Sasson who both claim to be better than the other. The heresies are "opposite": Simcha and Sasson push each other into heresy by denying the truth of the other.

    The apparent incompatibility between Torah and the truths of modernity is what caused both haskalic/reform/chiloni and chassidic/charedic heresies. Each embraces one of the seemingly incompatible truths and denies the other. The split became unavoidable when the world of Torah failed to develop scientific knowledge.

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  41. The heresies are "opposite": Simcha and Sasson push each other into heresy by denying the truth of the other.


    Is that all you meant, that there are two opposite mistakes? I thought that you had some more detailed correspondence between the specific views of the two 'minim' in the Gemara and current ideas.

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