Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dealing with Inconvenient Sources

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

Part 13: Dealing with Inconvenient Sources


The introduction to Chapter 60, which is entitled “I shall consider that I did not understand their words,” addresses “a few statements of the Rishonim that initially appear to oppose the mesorah which obligates us to interpret everything literally” (emphasis added). Of course, it is not a mere few statements, but let us see how R. Schmeltzer deals with these inconvenient sources that undermine his entire message.

R. Schmeltzer provides three paths of guidance. He first refers the reader back to the previous chapter, which states that with the kabbalistic revelations of the Arizal and so on, all previous alternative approaches to Torah have been disqualified. He then cites Rav Simcha Zissel that one should consider oneself not to have understood their meaning. As a third course of guidance, he quotes the Chazon Ish that one should not think about such things.

Words do not suffice to fully describe how nonsensical this is. However, I will make some remarks. First of all, there is the extraordinarily offensive assertion that an entire school of thought in the Rishonim, the Golden Age of Sefarad, has been rendered not only obsolete by the kabbalah, but even heretical. Second, this ignores the fact that even subsequent to the spread of kabbalah, there were numerous authorities – and even kabbalists, such as Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach, Rabbi Yisrael Friedman of Ruzhin and the Ben Ish Chai – who stated that the Gemara contains scientific errors.

Then, with regard to R. Schmeltzer’s citation of Rav Simcha Zissel that one should consider oneself not to have understood their meaning, it should be pointed out that Rav Simcha Zissel explicitly states that he is speaking about statements that contradict the fundamentals of faith, which he surely did not define in the same way as R. Schmeltzer. With regard to the statements of the Rishonim and Acharonim concerning the scientific errors in the Talmud, they are explicit, unambiguous, and often verbose. They said what they meant and meant what they said. There is no basis for saying that we have misunderstood their meaning.

With regard to the final piece of guidance, that it is better not to think about such things – I fully agree that there are potential dangers involved in these views. But in a work which claims to be a work of Torah scholarship, reflecting the views of Torah scholars throughout the ages, and defining the limits of authentic and legitimate approaches, it is unacceptable to use this as a basis for ignoring or distorting these views.

14 comments:

  1. Forgive my ignorance but which Rav Simcha Zissel? Thanks.

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  2. I was looking at my Living Torah just now, focussing on R' Kaplan's commentary on the bottom, and couldn't help but notice how many times the Talmud translates a word from the Torah one way, or identifies an object, animal, plague, location, etc one way, and then Rashi or Saadia Gaon, or some other Rishon translates or identifies it a different way.

    Does (or CAN) Rabbi Schmeltzer deal with this?

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  3. Near the end of Sotah 49b, it is written: “The face of the generation (of the Chevlai Moshiach) is like the face of a dog …” Interesting analogy. The Talmud offers possible explanations for this expression:


    “Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman in Kuntres Ikvos Meshicha quotes an explanation heard from the Chafetz Chaim. The face of the generation are the leaders (Bereishis Rabbah 79:6). A leader must guide his people authoritatively and teach them right from wrong. But in the period before Moshiach, the ostensible leaders will first check to see if their views will be popularly received, like a dog that looks back to see if his master follows.”

    Usually, vorts that include this teaching from R' Wasserman refer to politicians, but I wonder if Bereshit Rabba could've been talking about /Torah/ leaders. Oy, I wish it weren't true. On the bright side, it /would/ be a sign of Moshiach, now, wouldn't it? Please let that be the case.

    Let's not forget how the statement of Sotah ends:
    “Upon what, then, can we lean? Upon our Father in Heaven!”

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  4. Here is a link to a book which I am pleased to see that ArtScroll is still printing and selling, The Rishonim by R. Hersh Goldwurm:

    http://www.artscroll.com/Books/rish.html

    I read this over 20 years ago, and it was one of the first sources that opened my eyes to the fact that "hashkafa" is not as simple and monolithic as it is portrayed in yeshivos. For example, he mentions quite openly in many of his short biographical sketches that certain Rishonim were "opposed to kabbala".

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  5. >>"Then, with regard to R. Schmeltzer’s citation of Rav Simcha Zissel that one should consider oneself not to have understood their meaning, it should be pointed out that Rav Simcha Zissel explicitly states that he is speaking about statements that contradict the fundamentals of faith, which he surely did not define in the same way as R. Schmeltzer."


    Why is this relevant?
    Rav Simcha Zisel is giving instruction regarding a category of statements. He did not include the caveat: "if you disagree with what I narrowly include in this category, you may not apply my instruction".

    Also:

    >>"With regard to the statements of the Rishonim and Acharonim concerning the scientific errors in the Talmud, they are explicit, unambiguous, and often verbose. They said what they meant and meant what they said. There is no basis for saying that we have misunderstood their meaning."


    You seem to be implying that this is in contrast to the truly heretical statements made by the rabbis referred to by Rav Simcha Zissel. Can you cite the statements he was referring to in order to establish this contrast?

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  6. Isaac, how about if I say that according to Rav Simcha Zissel, whatever the Gedolim pasken, one need not follow it and one should simply say that "I have not understood their meaning"?

    It's absurd to claim his authority for applying his policy to things that he did not say this policy should be applied to!

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  7. "He first refers the reader back to the previous chapter, which states that with the kabbalistic revelations of the Arizal and so on, all previous alternative approaches to Torah have been disqualified."

    He really wrote that?? That sounds so Christian, like the Arizal was Jesus. I don't mean to offend, but I'm just creeped out by his suggestion/belief.

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  8. >>"It's absurd to claim his authority for applying his policy to things that he did not say this policy should be applied to!"

    Rav Simcha applied it to statements of heresy and R' Schmeltzer is applying it to what he believes is the same category. I don't see the absurdity.

    I believe you commit a similar absurdity when you assert that we have a license to accept evolution because of a certain rabbi's "approach" to creation in general despite his clear and unequivocal statements to the contrary regarding the specific issue of man's special creation.

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  9. What's absurd is for R. Schmelzer to be applying it ON R. SIMCHA'S AUTHORITY to that which only R. Schmeltzer believes to be heresy, not R. Simcha.

    It's like an Xtian saying, "According to R. Simcha Zissel, one should profess not to understand anything that seems to contradict the idea of Yoshke being the Messiah."

    I believe you commit a similar absurdity when you assert that we have a license to accept evolution because of a certain rabbi's "approach" to creation in general despite his clear and unequivocal statements to the contrary regarding the specific issue of man's special creation.

    Can you be more specific please?

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  10. "that it is better not to think about such things"

    this is the same sad and pathetic answer given to me in yeshiva 25 years ago when both he and I learned in the same yeshiva. It is also one of the reasons many bochurim have gone off the derech.

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  11. > this is the same sad and pathetic answer given to me in yeshiva 25 years ago when both he and I learned in the same yeshiva. It is also one of the reasons many bochurim have gone off the derech.

    I was also told repeatedly that” its better not to think about such things.” When legitimate questions are treated as taboo, the only logical conclusion is that there are no good answers. (Whether or not that is actually the case.) It’s a nice way of saying, “Shut up and do as your told.”

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  12. >>"Can you be more specific please?"

    The examples include every rabbinic source who dates prior to the theory of evolution-- quoted in your book in support of accepting the theory.

    Prior to the theory's formulation and popularity, it is practically certain that all these sources you quote in support of evolution, affirmed the the position of special creation.

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  13. If I were to be doing that, you'd apparently be fine with it, right? After all, you're fine with R. Schmeltzer doing it! Is this correct?

    In any case, I do not do that at all. I do not claim that anyone who lived before evolution was proposed by Darwin actually believed in it - I make it clear that they did not. What I say is that their conceptual understanding of creation is one that ties in very closely with evolution. These figures themselves had no idea of the possibility of evolution, but the ideas that they propose mean that for us, who do have the notion of evolution and evidence for it, we can say that it is compatible with Torah.

    It's like Rav Hirsch using Dibra Torah k'lashon bnei Adam for heliocentricity. Chazal certainly did not use it for that and did not believe in heliocentricity. But once they mention the concept of dibra Torah, we can apply it to that case.

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  14. I will leave it for the reader to decide if all your distinctions are valid.

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