Friday, September 11, 2009

Determining What Torah Scholars Mean

Over at Machzikei HaDas, Yirmiahu quotes from a post that I wrote a while back, as follows:
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?...If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior.
In case people are not following the link, I want to quote in full the paragraph from which the last phrase was quoted:
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.

Yirmiahu finds fault with my position that the academic method is superior for reaching historical truth. He first claims that
the concept that learning Torah l'shma makes a scholar 'great and exalts him above all things' (Avos 6:1, from the Artscroll Siddur)" is exchanged for a view in which their views and opinions can be evaluated with the same suppositions we would use for any other shmo.
I don't know what that Mishnah in Avos has to do with anything. Is Yirmiyah taking it to mean that a Torah scholar becomes immune from the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place? That's quite an inference! The Hebrew phrase is וּמְגַדַּלְתּוֹ וּמְרוֹמַמְתּוֹ עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים - I don't think that this means anything of the sort.

Yirmiahu then claims that
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.
It's not an attempt to make them controversial, it's an attempt to find out what they really meant. I think that respecting people means trying to ascertain what they really meant, not what would make them look good according to current standards. I know that this is how I would want to be respected! Reinterpreting someone's position to make it acceptable by today's norms does not reflect awe of them in the least; on the contrary, it reflects lack of awe. But I do agree that it is better for enhancing religious stability and inspiration amongst the masses (this is an important point which I will have to write about more at length on another occasion).

Yirmiahu then quotes Rambam:
The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation).
This is quite a remarkable incident of quoting something out of context. Let's look at the paragraph in its entirety:
You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.
Let's see. Rambam could have claimed that Chazal were always speaking about the pnimiyus, or some other such contrivance, in order to have their words not be contradicted by science. Instead, he said that they sometimes took positions based on the faulty scientific beliefs of their era. So Rambam is doing exactly the opposite of what Yirmiahu is (selectively) quoting him for!

Yirmiahu continues as follows:
While I don't suspect that the Rambam would demand that only a necessary inference should establish that an erroneous position was held, to cull dispersed writings to reveal an non-obvious error (while conceding that theoretically one's entire position could crash down like house of cards by the revelation of a single statement to the contrary) is not in anyway consistent with the Rambam's maxim.
Obviously he is talking about my Rashi article. First of all, I find it amusing that he sees it as a weakness that I conceded that a single clear statement by Rashi against corporeality would destroy my analysis. Actually, I see it as a strength - I am making a clear test for falsifiability. Isn't one of the common creationist charges against evolution that it is non-falsifiable? (Which happens not to be true.)

But Yirmiahu's main point here is that it is disrespectful to Rashi to show him to be a corporealist. Well, either Rashi was or was not a corporealist. If he was not, then I am simply wrong. If he was, then I don't see it as disrespectful to show what a Rishon actually held, for the reasons explained above. I do consider it disrespectful to distort what they held, or to try and cover it up. And how is this inconsistent with Rambam's maxim? Rambam was clearly talking about not negating the significance of true statements; but he most certainly held that Torah scholars absorb the beliefs of their era, even when this has ramifications on Torah beliefs!

But why discuss Rashi's view on this? What is to be gained? This is something that will be made clear in my follow-up article, "They Can Say It, We Cannot," due to appear in the next issue of Hakirah. Aside from understanding pshat in Rashi, I think that discovering that prominent Rishonim held views that are considered heretical today forces us to carefully analyze what the entire notion of heresy means - and I think that there are some interesting and unexpected conclusions. (And please don't try to predict my views, you are almost certainly incorrect!)

Yirmiahu then quotes from Rav Hirsch about how “the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” Of course, Rav Hirsch also held that Chazal accepted the false scientific beliefs of their era, and he also condemned Rambam for being influenced by Greek philosophy - thereby showing that he did not follow Yirmiahu's policy.

Yirmiahu then states:
To apply the principles generally utilized in the humanities to those we view as atypical in their wisdom and piety is to commit the fallacy of Hasty Generalization (or betray that one does not view them as atypical in wisdom and piety)
Now, it is of course true that one should be careful about generalizations. It is certainly not impossible for a person to rise above the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place, and nor did I ever claim otherwise, contrary to how some might like to falsely portray me. However, these are certainly factors that should be taken into account. Yirmiahu claims that these factors are not relevant, or are significantly less relevant, with Torah scholars, who are "atypical in their wisdom and piety." I believe that they were atypical in their piety, but I'm not sure what piety has to do with this topic. And with regards to wisdom - what does this mean? Intelligence (and if so, which kind of intelligence)? Torah knowledge? Torah values?

This will probably be one of those deep and irreconcilable differences between rationalists and mystics.

39 comments:

  1. "It is certainly not impossible for a person to rise above the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place, and nor did I ever claim otherwise, contrary to how some might like to falsely portray me. However, these are certainly factors that should be taken into account"

    The mystic would contend that even if societal norms had some effect, the fact that the ideas of the particular chacham/tzadik became part of the mesora of Torah indicate that the resulting "Torah" is to be considered pure and unadulterated. IOW, that is what G-d wanted to be in His Torah.

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  2. Yes, they probably would say something like that. It's strange that many of them don't apply it to the Rambam with the Moreh, but are comfortable with the Gra's assessment that he was led astray by Greek philosophy.

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  3. I'm up past my bedtime, so I beg your indulgence if I want to reassess my comments later:

    "But Yirmiahu's main point here is that it is disrespectful to Rashi to show him to be a corporealist"

    It most certainly is not, which is one reason I made it a separate post. I think that if you reread my comments on your blog you'll find that I'm consistently much more interested in your methodology than your conclusions.

    "I think that respecting people means trying to ascertain what they really meant, not what would make them look good according to current standards."

    Simply not relevant to the question of how we approach them. I didn't object, in this context, to your conclusion. As you yourself stated: "Yirmiahu finds fault with my position that the academic method is superior for reaching historical truth" It is not about your conclusion, its about your assumptions.

    "First of all, I find it amusing that he sees it as a weakness that I conceded that a single clear statement by Rashi against corporeality would destroy my analysis. Actually, I see it as a strength - I am making a clear test for falsifiability."

    I never said it was a weakness. You are attributing to him a position that is erroneous, despite the fact that you concession demonstrates that they can be interpreted in a way which they would not be in error. The Rambam, while conceding that scholars can be in error (which at no point have are argued against despite your continual reading it into my comments) insisted that "whenever" their words can be understood as NOT in error one should do so. You concession shows that you recognize you could do so, but you don't.

    "I don't know what that Mishnah in Avos has to do with anything. Is Yirmiyah taking it to mean that a Torah scholar becomes immune from the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place? That's quite an inference!"


    I would argue that וּמְרוֹמַמְתּוֹ עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים is quite a claim! Nevertheless, I never claimed...in fact I denied, that this meant that a Talmid Chacham cannot take a problematic position. Nor did I argue that it is impossible for them to be influenced by their surrounding environment or culture. Rabbi Slifkin is now the one engaged in the black or white, false dilemma, approach. I objected to treating them just like anyone else. But R. Slifkin would have it all or nothing, either we approach them with the same standard as we we anyone else, ascribing to them the same shortcommings and limitations, or we treat them as infallible.

    "Of course, Rav Hirsch also held that Chazal accepted the false scientific beliefs of their era, and he also condemned Rambam for being influenced by Greek philosophy - thereby showing that he did not follow Yirmiahu's policy."

    Again, you are conflating your conclusions with your method. The simple fact is that Rav Hirsh zt'l holds that we can expect to differ with academics conclusions because we are working with a different set of data. Can you give me an example of an issue you disagree with academia on?

    I had probably leave it at that for now.

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  4. You are attributing to him a position that is erroneous, despite the fact that you concession demonstrates that they can be interpreted in a way which they would not be in error.

    First of all, of course I do not think that it is erroneous!
    Second, I think that it would be very, very difficult to interpret my evidence in any other way. If there was an explicit statement from Rashi opposing corporealism, then we would have to. But it would be very difficult!

    The Rambam, while conceding that scholars can be in error ... insisted that "whenever" their words can be understood as NOT in error one should do so.

    What does "whenever" mean? Plenty of people, from Maharal through to Reuven Schmeltzer, have managed to interpret Pesachim 94b so that Chazal's words are not in error, and yet Rambam maintained that they are in error! "Whenever" does not mean "by some convoluted means" - he meant when there is clear evidence that they are not in error. Read the quote!

    Rabbi Slifkin is now the one engaged in the black or white, false dilemma, approach. I objected to treating them just like anyone else.

    Would you care to quantify the amount by which they vary, and the ramifications of this? And would you care to specify exactly how they are different? Intelligence? Torah knowledge? What?

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  5. "First of all, of course I do not think that it is erroneous!"

    I mean that corporealism is erroneous, not your assertion that he was a corporealist. It would just be a waste of time for me to call your position wrong without any back up.

    ""Whenever" does not mean "by some convoluted means""

    So what? "Can be interpreted" means can be interpreted. Just because someone takes a position that so and so held such and such doesn't mean that the position is an interpretation of their words.
    Your conclusion is not an necessary inference even if it was a probable one, especially considering it is of a nature that most people clearly don't notice the apparent conflict.

    "Would you care to quantify the amount by which they vary, and the ramifications of this?"

    When it comes to their Torah opinions they should be treated as a league of their own, and I fail to see how anything else can remotely be called awe or emunas chachamim.

    But really, I should go to bed. :)

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  6. First of all, of course I do not think that it is erroneous!

    Rabbi Slifkin, do you really mean to say you "do not think that it ["it"=the belief in the corporeality of God] is erroneous"?

    Remember, the question was NOT if you think "Rashi was wrong" for believing it. But rather if THE BELIEF is erroneous.
    You say it is not?

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  7. Yirmiahu, thanks for the qualification. (Issac, of course I was referring to my belief about Rashi, not to my belief about God!)

    By the way, do you believe that someone who is a corporealist has no share in the World-to-Come?

    "Whenever" does not mean "by some convoluted means""

    So what? "Can be interpreted" means can be interpreted.


    It makes all the difference in the world! It means that neither Rambam nor Hirsch provide the support for your position that you claim! Rambam said that Chazal erred, and Hirsch said that Rambam erred hashkafically, and in both cases the accused "can" be interpreted favorably. But they felt that such interpretations were unreasonable!

    When it comes to their Torah opinions they should be treated as a league of their own, and I fail to see how anything else can remotely be called awe or emunas chachamim.

    But what does this actually mean? Are you saying that it is impossible for them to have believed the reigning scientific wisdom of their day if it was wrong? If not, then what?

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  8. Two more points:

    1) I find it disturbing that you have not acknowledged your mis-characterization of Yirmiyahu's critique.
    Your post clearly indicates that you understood it as a critique on your conclusions when it is eminently clear that it was a critique on your methods and methodological assumptions.

    2) Rabbi Slifkin wrote:
    >>"Would you care to quantify the amount by which they vary, and the ramifications of this? And would you care to specify exactly how they are different? Intelligence? Torah knowledge? What?"

    I believe you are feigning ignorance in order to elicit a response that you can easily dismiss as not rigorous.

    Yirmiyahu is clearly referring to a great Torah scholar's ability to arrive at the truth despite the usual limitations and biases that normal human beings are subject to. This is called "superior wisdom". I believe this is obvious from the context.

    The mere inability to quantify the differences between a Torah scholar's abilities and an average person with any real precision, does not make the assumption of such a difference less valid, nor the concept less meaningful and important.
    (It may surely be invalidated on other grounds, but not on the grounds of imprecise quantification.)

    And upon seeing how much Maimonides gives such deference to the Sages--beyond what he would give to ordinary people's opinions-- in much of his writing, indicates to me that this is not just another "Mystics vs. Rationalists" trench line.

    Rabbi Slifkin, you seem to be more interested in dismissing this critique than confronting it and refuting it.

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  9. I find it disturbing that you have not acknowledged your mis-characterization of Yirmiyahu's critique.
    Your post clearly indicates that you understood it as a critique on your conclusions when it is eminently clear that it was a critique on your methods and methodological assumptions.


    To the extent that I mischaracterized it, I apologize. However, I am not yet all convinced that I mischaracterized it. Let's see how this discussion plays out.

    I believe you are feigning ignorance in order to elicit a response that you can easily dismiss as not rigorous.

    No, I am trying to figure out and demonstrate whether it is something that everyone should accept.

    Yirmiyahu is clearly referring to a great Torah scholar's ability to arrive at the truth despite the usual limitations and biases that normal human beings are subject to. This is called "superior wisdom".

    But what does that mean? Does it mean that they are not subject to the limitations of scientific knowledge? Does it mean that they are not subject to the intellectual trends, such as Greek philosophy? What?

    The mere inability to quantify the differences between a Torah scholar's abilities and an average person with any real precision, does not make the assumption of such a difference less valid, nor the concept less meaningful and important.

    Yes of course it does!

    And upon seeing how much Maimonides gives such deference to the Sages--beyond what he would give to ordinary people's opinions-- in much of his writing, indicates to me that this is not just another "Mystics vs. Rationalists" trench line.

    Examples, please.

    Rabbi Slifkin, you seem to be more interested in dismissing this critique than confronting it and refuting it.

    How on earth does writing hundreds of words and asking for details qualify as dismissing rather than confronting?

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  10. Also, depending on which limitations you claim that they are not (as) subject to - scientific, cultural-intellectual, etc. - what is the basis for this?

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  11. >>"Does it mean that they are not subject to the limitations of scientific knowledge? Does it mean that they are not subject to the intellectual trends, such as Greek philosophy?"

    If I may repeat what Yirmiyahu already pointed out, it is not a question of "they are" or "they are not" subject to XYZ.

    Asking whether "they are" or "they are not" is precisely what Yirmiyahu identified:
    >>"Rabbi Slifkin is now the one engaged in the black or white, false dilemma, approach. I objected to treating them just like anyone else. But R. Slifkin would have it all or nothing, either we approach them with the same standard as we we anyone else, ascribing to them the same shortcomings and limitations, or we treat them as infallible."

    There is a middle ground of extending the Sages additional credit and benefit of the doubt when there is minimally reasonable room to allow it.
    I admit that this definition of what is considered "minimally reasonable" will be an irreconcilable dispute between rationalists and mystics.
    But the fact remains that average people's opinions would not enjoy ANY extra benefit of the doubt in the academic world--even if it would be minimally reasonable.

    This is definitely giving preferential intellectual treatment to the Sages (but is not at all an assumption of infallibility).

    Yirmiahu is apparently claiming that this preferential treatment to Torah sages is demanded by Judaism as their due.

    Just to clarify, I am not endorsing Yirmiahu's view, but I do find it intensely frustrating that you do not appreciate what he is saying.

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  12. "Would you care to quantify the amount by which they vary, and the ramifications of this? And would you care to specify exactly how they are different? Intelligence? Torah knowledge? What?"

    They are more like Moshe Rabbeinu, Eliyahu, Yeshayahu, Yechezkel, Zecharia, Ezra, Zerubavel, Shimon ben Shetach, Hillel, Rabbi Akiva, Yehuda HaNasi... They are different in closeness to HaShem, in holiness, in Siatta DiShamaya.

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  13. There is a middle ground of extending the Sages additional credit and benefit of the doubt when there is minimally reasonable room to allow it.

    Actually, there is an infinitely large middle ground. There could be a case where Yirmiahu feels that there is not adequately reasonable room, but someone else feels that there is. There could be a case where Yirmiahu feels that there IS adequately reasonable room, but someone else feels that there is not. That is why, if you are not explaining the nature and extent of this difference between Torah scholars and other people, it isn't very helpful or meaningful.

    And I would still like to hear the basis for, and nature of, this difference. What is it? Surely that's the most basic question to be addressed here!

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  14. Just to reiterate: I fully agree that there may be valid religious considerations NOT to pursue the academic method. I plan to write a post on this. I just disagree that it is a less valid method for reaching historical truth.

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  15. Just to clarify - of course there is a difference between saying that Torah scholars are as susceptible to restrictions as everyone else, and saying that they are not. But if you are claiming that this is a basis for making the former less valid for reaching conclusions, then you have to give a reasonable basis for saying that they do not have these restrictions. Furthermore, if you can't explain its nature and parameters, then unless you are saying that it is impossible to ever draw conclusions about Torah scholars' positions, it isn't very helpful.

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  16. It seems to me from this post that Natan Slifkin maintains that it is erroneous to say that God is corporeal, and that Rashi held this view even though we now know that it is mistaken. But how do we know it is a mistake? Is there a proof that God is not corporeal? Maybe Rashi was right! How do you KNOW that he wasn't?

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  17. Michael, you've got me there! Maybe I should have said instead that I believe God to be incorporeal.

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  18. Rabbi Slifkin,

    You often draw a line between rationalists and mystics. I simply wanted to say that many Jews are "in betweens."

    I, for instance, generally take the rationalist approach (I believe the gemera and rishonim can be wrong, evolution to be probably true etc.). However, I don't dismiss the notion that mezuzahs offer protection to homes. I don't firmly believe it to be true or untrue, but even if I do lean toward believing it to be true, I don't think this pushes me into the mystic camp.

    It is not unreasonable to believe mezuzahs offer protection in the same way that it is unreasonable to believe fleas grow from meat.

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  19. "But what does this actually mean? Are you saying that it is impossible for them to have believed the reigning scientific wisdom of their day if it was wrong? If not, then what?"

    I'm not going to have a chance to answer your question/objection with the full justice it deserves but since we have a busy week/weeks ahead of us I don't want to just ignore it either.

    I am certain that with enough time I could formulate an opinion on how to our approach to Chazal should differ. But as you yourself noted that there could very well be a range, and I would add that such a range could also mean various standards apply to various talmidei chachamim. I would also point out that it would not be much easier to codify how to differ from the academic method when approaching Chazal than it would be to codify the academic method itself.

    The question really isn't so much, what is the difference, but that there is a difference. I see room for divergent opinions on this, some more maximalist, some more minimalist, with mine probably right of center.

    If one approaches Chachamim, in particularly Chazal and the Gedolei HaMesorah, with an academic approach there is NO difference. Such equation renders the concept of reverence to the Sages a platitude.

    I should add, in case anyone misunderstands, I do not mean to imply you personally are lacking reverence for the Sages, but that this derech/method does. I imagine that in your day to day life your approach is similar to anyone else who puts in the effort to be shomer Torah uMitzvos. But I do fear that the more often you put on your Academic thinking cap, the more detrimental it will be to your avodas Hashem. I know for myself skepticism has an easy time converting to cynicism.

    So, al regel achas if you will, I would suggest that any method popular in academic/humanities circles, which already has a tenuous grasp on conformity to the principles of logic should be very very reluctantly applied to talmidei chachamim if at all.

    When I said that your "conspicuous absence" argument was an argument from silence, I did so recognizing (to myself) that such arguments do find themselves brought into such academic opinions. Likewise with hasty generalizations. I do not begrudge academics for pushing the limits in these areas because it is very hard not to, but I would suggest that our opinion of the humanities has changed a lot more than the physical sciences over the last 150 years in part because of such laxity, even if necessary and useful.

    Consider, you refuted a proof that Rashi was a corporealist based on a text which said hand was meant literal. You did so by comparison with other texts which indicate he only meant to clarify the usage of the term hand. Imagine that the other text wasn't there. Rashi's intent would have been the same, but in such a case you would have no basis to infer that he meant anything other than a physical hand. You would have misunderstood Rashi, even where he actually a corporealist, and then been able to claim that you were "honoring him" by being true to his actual intent which you had misunderstood!

    "However, I am not yet all convinced that I mischaracterized it. Let's see how this discussion plays out."

    How the discussion plays out doesn't change what I wrote in my post, or that it was mischaracterized in your rebuttal.


    That's probably enough for now...

    A Gut Voch and a Gut Yohr

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  20. If one approaches Chachamim, in particularly Chazal and the Gedolei HaMesorah, with an academic approach there is NO difference. Such equation renders the concept of reverence to the Sages a platitude.

    Absolutely not the case. For goodness' sake, even in the non-Jewish, secular, academic world, people are able to have reverence for great people such as Newton and Einstein! Kal v'chomer that we can have reverence for people who are not only great minds, but also great personalities.

    I do fear that the more often you put on your Academic thinking cap, the more detrimental it will be to your avodas Hashem.

    Agreed 100%. I already mentioned this problem with the academic approach. But this has nothing to do with whether it is better at determining historical realities.

    With regard to your example with Rashi. Of course it is always possible that there will be new evidence that will shed different light on things. That is true with any field of knowledge. However, this does not mean that we should never feel at all confident in our conclusions. Each case is different; it depends on how much data we have to work with, etc. And it most certainly does not have any bearing on whether this methodology is less effective with Torah scholars than with other people!

    Yirmiahu, in your lengthy and well-written comment, you still have not mentioned a basis for believing that Torah scholars are different from other people with regard to this topic! Isn't that the most basic thing to address? If you are saying that it is potentially spiritually harmful to think otherwise - fine, agreed. But you seem to be claiming that it is actually inaccurate to think otherwise. Why?

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  21. Regarding historical truth versus psak, look at;
    http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/133388

    The Menorah on this ancient stone has round, and not straight, arms. This contradicts the psak of the Rambam, and the claims of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, among others.

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  22. Moshe Rafael:
    The link you provided got cut off on my screen.
    There are opinions that say that the menorah that was taken by the Romans wasn't THE menorah, but one of the auxilliary ones.
    Or something like that.

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  23. But as a rationalist following the tradition of Maimonides, shouldn't you know that G-d is not corporeal rather than just believe it?

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  24. @Moshe Rafael:

    Thanks for the link.
    israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/133388

    Comment #28 directed me to:

    http://www.torathmoshe.com/2008/07/the-ark-of-the-covenant-and-golden-menorah/

    http://www.torathmoshe.com/2008/07/the-ark-
    of-the-covenant-and-golden-menorah/

    which challenges, what he calls, "the Rambam nay-sayers"

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  25. With great respect for Bar Ron, the question for him to answer would be why the trident replicas of the Romans would be similar to what appears on this stone.

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  26. >>"Yirmiahu, in your lengthy and well-written comment, you still have not mentioned a basis for believing that Torah scholars are different from other people with regard to this topic! Isn't that the most basic thing to address?"

    Rabbi Slifkin, I was patiently waiting for Yirmiahu to respond in person. But since he seems to have left the conversation, I feel it is appropriate to fill the void.

    First we have the very citation from the Guide that Yirmiahu provided originally:
    >>"The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation)."

    After it was clarified that your criticism of this citation was not relevant because conclusions are not the issue but rather the process and methodology, it would seem that this citation provides the requested basis.

    Second, we have Maimonides' statement in his commentary about how the imperative to attribute wisdom to the Sages and not boorishness.I think it is obvious that Maimonides would not insist on this attribution regarding other people's statements:
    פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י
    והכת השניה גם הם רבים והם אותם שראו דברי חכמים או שמעוהו והבינוהו כפשטו, וחשבו שאין כונת חכמים בכך אלא משמעות פשטי הדברים, ולכן זלזלו בו וגנוהו וחשבו למוזר מה שאינו מוזר, וילעיגו על דברי חכמים לעתים קרובות, וחושבים שהם יותר נבונים מהם ויותר זכי רעיון, ושהם עליהם השלום פתיים חסרי דעת סכלים בכל המציאות, ואינם משיגים שום דבר כלל, ורוב מי שנפל במחשבה זו אותם הטוענים שהם רופאים, וההוזים במשפטי המזלות, לפי שהם לפי דמיונם פקחים חכמים פילוסופים וכמה רחוקים הם מן האנושות אצל הפילוסופים האמתיים. והם יותר סכלים מן הכת הראשונה ויותר פתים, והם כת ארורה שהתפרצו כלפי אנשים רמי המעלה שכבר נודעה חכמתם אצל החכמים. ואלו הכשירו את עצמם במדעים עד שידעו איך כותבים את הדברים בענינים האלהיים וכיוצא בהם מן המדעים להמון ולחכמים, ויסגלו לעצמם את החלק המעשי של הפילוסופיא, כי אז היו מבינים אם החכמים חכמים או לאו, והיו מובנים להם עניני דבריהם

    Then we see in the introduction to the Guide:
    וראיתי עוד, שאותם הדרשות כאשר רואה אותן הסכל מציבור 60 הרבנים, לא יקשה לו מהם מאומה, כי אין הסכל הפתי 61 הריק מידיעת טבע המציאות מרחיק את הנמנעות. וכאשר יראה אותן שלם מעולה 62 לא ימלט מאחד משני דברים:
    - או שיפרשם כפשוטם ותהיה לו מחשבה רעה על האומר ויחשבהו לסכל, ואין בכך הרס ליסודות האמונה 63.
    - או שיחשוב שיש להן סוד הרי זה ניצול ודן את האומר לזכות, בין שנתבאר לו סוד אותו הדבר או שלא נתבאר.

    And then he asks of his readers to judge his words favorably and adds that to do this for the words of the sages is a higher obligation than for the average Jew:

    ואם נתגלה לו בו שיבוש לפי מחשבתו, 97 ימציא לו הסבר וידין לכף זכות, ואפילו על ידי הסבר רחוק, כפי שנצטווינו אפילו כלפי המונינו, כל שכן כלפי חכמינו ונושאי תורתנו 98 המשתדלים ללמדנו את האמת כפי השגתם.

    Elsewhere in the commentary to the Mishna, Maimonides says one needs TO PRAY TO GOD in order to merit achieving proper insight into the words of the sages!

    I believe all this is ample basis for what Yirmiahu claims is the required approach. (Again, not conclusions) And it comes from the model rationalist--Maimonides himself--as I remarked earlier.

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  27. I don't get what the Leiman Library has to do with the question that I asked.

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  28. Isaac, this all goes back to R' Elyashiv alleged statement "the Rambam can say this, but we can't." Only someone as great and qualified as the Rambam, and most importantly as reverent to divrie chazal as the Rambam, can begin to chose one Chazal over the next. There is no approach, or methodology that comes with an inherent right to reject.

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  29. >>"The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation)."

    After it was clarified that your criticism of this citation was not relevant because conclusions are not the issue but rather the process and methodology, it would seem that this citation provides the requested basis.


    Isaac, the context in which this citation is brought shows that it provides no such basis at all. Rambam just means here that when someone gets something right, they should be given due credit, and not said to have gotten it right by fluke.

    Second, we have Maimonides' statement in his commentary about how the imperative to attribute wisdom to the Sages and not boorishness.

    I agree. But this is not something specific to Torah scholars; it would equally apply to Aristotle and Newton. When smart people say things that sound absurd, one should look for deeper meaning rather than dismissing it.

    And then he asks of his readers to judge his words favorably and adds that to do this for the words of the sages is a higher obligation than for the average Jew

    But he gives his reasons, and they are reasons that apply to any wise person engaged in an important intellectual task.

    Note that you still have not given a basis for believing that Torah scholars are different from other people with regard to this topic.

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  30. Only someone as great and qualified as the Rambam, and most importantly as reverent to divrie chazal as the Rambam, can begin to chose one Chazal over the next.

    How reverent exactly was Rambam? Are you aware that when quoting a maamar Chazal approvingly, he says "If only everything they said was as wise!"

    There is no approach, or methodology that comes with an inherent right to reject.

    Of course there is! "Accept the truth from wherever it comes" "A persons eyes are set before him, not behind him" "Do not think that the Sages are infallible in their scientific pronouncements." This is Rambam's approach, that he transmits to others, and this comes with an inherent right to reject.

    Besides, who are you to quote Rav Elyashiv in disapproval of my approach? Only someone as great and qualified as Rav Elyashiv can do that. Are you claiming that you are as great and as qualified as Rav Elyashiv?

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  31. I don't understand what the post about Three Types of Rationalists has to do with the question I asked earlier. I had asked that if you are a rationalist in the tradition of Maimonides, shouldn't you know that G-d is not corporeal rather than just believe it. Are you saying that we now know that people cannot prove that G-d is not corporeal? I mean, are you saying that Maimonides' proof in the Guide that G-d is not corporeal is now known to be wrong?

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  32. I don't know about that proof per se. I was just saying that in general, we put much less stock in philosophical proofs these days than in the times of the Rishonim.

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  33. I'm sorry, I did not mean to disappear, but events have been such that I have had even less time than I had anticipated at the beginning of my last comment.

    In the meantime I would like to ask a bit of clarification, Rabbi Slifkin wrote:

    "But he gives his reasons, and they are reasons that apply to any wise person engaged in an important intellectual task."

    Do you believe that the academic approach judges favorably in such a manner?

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  34. I haven't done a study, but the academics that I know certainly do!

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  35. "Yirmiahu, in your lengthy and well-written comment, you still have not mentioned a basis for believing that Torah scholars are different from other people with regard to this topic! Isn't that the most basic thing to address?"

    Rabbi Slifkin, I apologize for the delay. Last week there were some unanticipated challenges I had to deal with, in addition to everything else.

    I think you ask a fair question but I would first like to note that it is a new question. Up until this point, it seems to me, you accepted my contention (at least for the sake of argument) that Torah Scholars are different in this regard. Rather the question was how to apply that difference.

    It was only when I argued that the issue is that applying the same standard was equivalent to there being no difference did you challenge the basic premiss.

    And while your question is a fair question, I believe that it is one I answered in the post, although you have already indicated you don't see the relevance; "I don't know what that Mishnah in Avos has to do with anything."

    The point is it is directly relevant. Torah l'shma brings a person to wisdom. While I wouldn't be quick to limit the applicability of wisdom, is there any more likely/less debatable application than Torah wisdom? Yet this is precisely the are which you are using the general method to understand one of the leading Torah scholars of all time. Pirkei Avos is not saying studying Torah produces wisdom, but specifically l'Shma. There's a difference.

    "But you seem to be claiming that it is actually inaccurate to think otherwise. Why?"

    I think you are alluding to the relevance of my position in a historical sense, which is a fair question. Bear in mind I am not making this argument in a vacuum, but in a forum where belief in Torah is accepted. I would not make such a criticism against an academic, although I disagree. We are not working with the same set of data to form our conclusions, which is, after all, the point of the quote from Rav Hirsch ztl.

    I believe in the Torah and the teaching of the Sages, and that should, and does, influence how I form decision on other related matters. To do otherwise is to pay lip service to belief.

    I have a couple of other thoughts, but I may turn them into a post of my own.

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  36. Of course learning Torah brings one to wisdom. And of course the wiser a person is, the more careful we have to be in evaluating their statements. But this is not something intrinsically unique to Torah scholars. The same would be true of Aristotle and Newton.

    With regard to l'shmah - tell me, how are you interpreting that word? Are you aware that there is a long history of different interpretations of it?

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  37. "With regard to l'shmah - tell me, how are you interpreting that word? Are you aware that there is a long history of different interpretations of it?"

    Yes, I'm aware, and it isn't really relevant unless you would like to argue that Rashi did not learn l'shma, or that anyone who learns Torah learns l'shma.

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