Monday, September 7, 2009

Maharal: Creative Genius or Unoriginal Redactor?

Today is the 400th yahrzheit of Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague. In a special feature on the Maharal in Jewish Action, Rabbi Matis Greenblatt writes as follows:

Perhaps Maharal's greatest contribution was his innovative approach to interpreting the Aggadic portion of the Talmud...


Maharal's innovative approach was not merely in the way that he interpreted Aggadah - as metaphysics rather than metaphor - but also in his applying this approach to passages in the Talmud that were not formerly interpreted as Aggadah. A striking example is the dispute on Pesachim 94b, which before Maharal was never interpreted as anything other than a dispute about astronomy.

In sharp contrast to this view of Maharal is the view of Maharal that emerges from the teachings of another creative genius: Rav Moshe Shapiro, as reflected in Chaim B'Emunasam. According to this view, Maharal's approach was not innovative in the least. Rather, the Rishonim always interpreted Chazal this way and only this way. Maharal was merely the first one to put it into writing.

(If you haven't yet read Rabbi Chaim Eisen's superb essay on another innovation of Maharal - his elevating Aggada to dogma - as well as how Maharal did not become popular until recently, read it now!)

68 comments:

  1. "Maharal: creative genius or unoriginal redactor?"

    Here we go with the academic dichotomies again...

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  2. Nothing in the seforim of the Maharal is ont found in the either seforim - particularly the sifrie kabalah - of the Rishonim, or in the Zohar. True the Maharal may have explained - in writing - many more passages than in any one particular sefer, but the principals are nothing new. Applying a known concept to explain a gemara, is hardly innovative. It's like two different computer low-level or mid-level computer languages, while they have completely different sets of words, they both compile into the same machine code, to accomplish the same objective. To someone who doesn't understand both of languages, two code of exact same programs will look like night and day.

    Of course if one believes the Zohar and Kabala to be a 13th century invention, it would be a logical extension that the Maharal is too...

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  3. You'd better write to Jewish Action and tell them.

    Tell me, who before Maharal explained aggadatas in terms of metaphysics/pnimyus?

    And who before Maharal applied this approach to discussions in the Gemara that are not Aggadata, such as the dispute in Pesachim 94b?

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  4. Alumnus of LakewoodSeptember 7, 2009 at 4:44 PM

    I learned in Lakewood for many years and I can tell you that many people there are NOT fans of Maharal's approach at all.

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  5. Why don't you share with us who is of the opinion that there is no underlying pnimyus to every halachik discussion?

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  6. Ever heard of Hamotzvi mechavero alav harayah? You're the one trying to prove the existence of something.

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  7. Nice to hear in your corner of Lakewood, meforim have fan clubs, please tell us which meforshim they are fans of.

    What people find difficult with the Maharal is not his ideas, but rather his style. The Maharal is challenging to learn because he chose not to relay his sources, and standard yeshivishe learning dictates that one analyze to the source. The Maharal also employs an unusual set of terminology, so it's hard compare and contrast, and to understand EXACTLY what he is saying.

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  8. Ever heard of Hamotzvi mechavero alav harayah? You're the one trying to prove the existence of something.
    -------

    Sorry, but until you find someone who says Halachik discussion does not have a pnimyus, the burden of proof is on you.

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  9. Tzvi, I bet you can't find any Rishon who says that evolution is kefirah! Hence they must have held that it's not.

    You are claiming that there are sources before Maharal that sugyas are to be interpreted as referring to the metaphysical roots of phenomena. Name one.

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  10. Clarification: Lack of Rishonim, in conjunction with a (almost?) universal opinion of Achronim.

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  11. "Ever heard of Hamotzvi mechavero alav harayah? You're the one trying to prove the existence of something."

    Insofar as the Maharal clearly understood Chazal to take such an approach I think the burden of proof is on the one who wished to say that the Maharal was wrong.

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  12. The discussion is not about whether the Maharal was right or wrong. The discussion is whether his approach was a chiddush or not.

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  13. It would be an antithesis to the Maharals entire life approach to be a "Creative Genius".

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  14. The Maharal write in numerous places about not changing the derech halimud, and ofr that matter anything, from the way is was in the time of the gemara.

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  15. "The discussion is not about whether the Maharal was right or wrong. The discussion is whether his approach was a chiddush or not."

    The Maharal wasn't trying to innovate, so that's a distinction without a difference.

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  16. That's not relevant. The fact that someone does not believe himself to be innovating something does not mean that he is not innovating something. Hey, that's what my opponents say about me!

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  17. Rabbi Slifkin,

    How do you have patience for these comments? They are so illogical and never actually confront the questions you pose.

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  18. What really bothers me here is that these people clearly know nothing about the Maharal! Have any of you read anything about his past?? How he was trying to reform the way we teach kids in yeshiva. He wanted to remove tosfos from the daf and replace it with the rosh. How he was trying to fight against the mainstream thinking of Judaism of his time, namely philosophy? This is mainly why, even though he respected the Rambam, he disagreed with him about his approach to Judaism. This is clear throughout all of his sefarim.

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  19. Given our stong belief in and reliance on the mesorah, there's an incentive to claim that "this isn't really new; it has been there all along."

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  20. "That's not relevant. The fact that someone does not believe himself to be innovating something does not mean that he is not innovating something. Hey, that's what my opponents say about me!"

    I never said he wasn't wrong, I simply rejected your attempt at your shifting away the burden of proof in your claim that he was wrong.

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  21. My claim is not that the Maharal was wrong. My claim is that nobody before the Maharal took his approach. I am not absolutely certain of this, so I put it out here, waiting for my critics to prove me wrong. So far, nobody has been able to come up with anything.

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  22. "My claim is not that the Maharal was wrong. My claim is that nobody before the Maharal took his approach."

    Again, a distinction without a difference since the Maharal felt he was transmitting Mesorah. Maharal being wrong is a psik reisha of your assertion, and I think that puts the burden of proof squarely on your shoulders. I'm not saying you can't or even that you haven't shouldered that burden.

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  23. Yirmiyahu, everyone claims to be just carrying on the mesorah.

    Besides, how is one supposed to prove that the Rishonim didn't use an approach? I already quoted the Rishonim on Pesachim 94b and showed that they didn't use that approach. What am I supposed to do, quote all the Rishonim on every single sugya in Shas?!

    If, as my critics claim, Maharal did not originate his approach, they only need to cite a single earlier source using it.

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  24. "How he was trying to reform the way we teach kids in yeshiva. He wanted to remove tosfos from the daf and replace it with the rosh."

    The tosafos was put on the daf a few short years before that by printers and typesetters. The maharal was trying to change the derech back to the way it was 50 years before him, actually he was trying to stop a spread of a new derech, and to keep the old one in place.

    "I already quoted the Rishonim on Pesachim 94b and showed that they didn't use that approach."

    What is so hard to understand that at the same time that rishonim can say it was a machlokes in metziyos, there still is an underlying pniymus to the shita? What is so "chidushdik" about your typical, or rather every, machlokes in mishnayos having a pnimuys to it? How difficult to understand that they are not mutually exclusive?

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  25. The Rishonim say it was a machlokes in astronomy. The Maharal says it was NOT a machlokes in astronomy. If you want to somehow stick the Maharal's approach into the Rishonim, and that works for you, great, but you can't expect other people to accept that the Maharal was not originating something new, or to accept that this is what the Rishonim actually meant.

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  26. "If, as my critics claim, Maharal did not originate his approach, they only need to cite a single earlier source using it."

    Using it, or articulating it?

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  27. One could argue that the Zohar essentially did this to the mitzvos.
    Before the Zohar, most authorities attributed very pragmatic effects to the performance of mitzvos: Proper beliefs and opinions, proper character traits, proper functioning of society, etc. I thing Shiluach Haken is a prime example.
    I believe the Zohar was the first to put a penimiyus spin on all of that.
    The Zohar says the cry of the mother bird elicited by sending her away from her young hastens the final redemption!

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  28. Issac, for once I entirely agree with you! And shiluach hakein is an excellent example.

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  29. My point being that the Zohar did this kind of thing well before the Maharal...

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  30. Oh, I thought you were making the point that the Zohar introduced a novel approach that was unheard of in the Rishonim!

    The Zohar's approach to mitzvos is not at all comparable to Maharal's approach to Aggadata. One is dealing with mitzvos, one with aggadata! It is probably also the case that the Zohar is dealing with the spiritual world as a distinct entity, not Maharal's approach of seeing seemingly physical descriptions as referring to metaphysical roots of those phenomena.

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  31. A talmid of R. Henach Liebowitz (late Rosh Yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim) told me that R. Liebowitz didn't use Maharal because he felt that Maharal's approach didn't come from the rishonim. (He apparently felt the same way about Michtav Me'eliyahu.)

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  32. "My point being that the Zohar did this kind of thing well before the Maharal..."

    Well before is only if you think the Zohar is from Chazal, and therefore sheds light an how Chazal understood things. But them again you'll hear "there were different schools of thought by Chazal..."

    Unless of course you don't think the Zohar is from Chazal, and then the Maharal's explainations are not in the derech of Chazal. I suspect this is the bottom line to many of the traditional vs. rational discussions.

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  33. Chaim, I am sorry to burst your bubble, but the pilpul approach that was being used at the time of the Maharal had been used since before the time of Tosfos! To say it was made up right before the maharal shows ignorance. The Maharal wanted to change that. I will find an article on wellsprings that I saw a couple of years ago that illustrates this point. I can't believe u think the pilpul way of learning was invented in the time of the maharal.

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  34. "Chaim, I am sorry to burst your bubble, but the pilpul approach that was being used at the time of the Maharal had been used since before the time of Tosfos! To say it was made up right before the maharal shows ignorance."

    You are confusing derech hachiluk of the baali tosfos with pilpul. The Mahral had an issue with the derech that was being spread by R' Yakov Polack a contemporary of the Mahral. The complaint about tosafos being on the page was only because the Mahral felt it was distracting from focusing on the halacha the gemara was discussing, it had nothing to do with the derech of tosfos.

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  35. A talmid of R. Henach Liebowitz (late Rosh Yeshiva of Chofetz Chaim) told me that R. Liebowitz didn't use Maharal because he felt that Maharal's approach didn't come from the rishonim.

    Nu, Joe, Tzvi, Yirmiyahu, Dave, what do you have to say about that?

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  36. Chaim, I was not relating the two, but pilpul had been used since before the time of tosfos. It was not made up by Rabbi Pollack, but was advocated by him.

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  37. >>Nu, Joe, Tzvi, Yirmiyahu, Dave, what do you have to say about that?

    Dave said...
    Nebach.


    Ah.
    But still no actual sources before Maharal with his approach, right?

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  38. "But still no actual sources before Maharal with his approach, right?"

    Why do you not consider the Zohar a valid source?

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  39. Chaim, by the way, I was referring to the pilpul approach that the Maharal was against in full, not just the specific kind of pilpul that existed at the time. Check out this web page http://books.google.com/books?id=keXGJjd4ThcC&pg=PA273&lpg=PA273&dq=when+was+pilpul+created&source=bl&ots=z_1j9ZvcrW&sig=smW2a6H-cBSHWCzxJnp_Wb2oQvw&hl=en&ei=8LqmSoiZCuL7tgeV6ZysCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=when%20was%20pilpul%20created&f=false. It shows that the Tosafos actually did practice a certain form of pilpul. It was a type of proto-pilpul, if you will, to the kind that evolved in the days of Rav Yaakov Pollack. However, the maharal was attacking the kind of pilpul that existed in ashkenaz even in the times of tosfos. This is pointed out on page 273 of this book.

    Also, check the Maharasha on Babba Metzia daf 85a divrei hamaskil delishtakach. He points out there, as well as the book that I linked to, that even the amoraim used pilpul.

    The Maharal was against this general approach of pilpul. He opted for the sefardi way of learning, the halachic approach. This is pointed out in maharal on pirkei avos perek 6 mishna 7, tiferes yisroel perek 56 and several other places.

    You might be correct that Rav Pollack invented that specific kind of pilpul, but the Maharal was against the type of pilpul that had existed for a long time in ashkenaz. This is what I refer to when I say he did not invent pilpul. He did not invent the pilpul that the Maharal was against. He did make a few changes to the way pilpul was used, but there were no drastic changes.

    The point I am making is that the Maharal was against the accepted derech halimud that existed in ashkenaz for several hundred years, if not more.

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  40. "Nu, Joe, Tzvi, Yirmiyahu, Dave, what do you have to say about that?"

    I would say he's arguing with the Maharal, not me.

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  41. "But still no actual sources before Maharal with his approach, right?"

    Why do you not consider the Zohar a valid source?


    Where do we see Maharal's approach in the Zohar?

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  42. "Nu, Joe, Tzvi, Yirmiyahu, Dave, what do you have to say about that?"

    I would say he's arguing with the Maharal, not me.


    But does the Maharal actually claim that his approach comes from the Rishonim?

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  43. "But does the Maharal actually claim that his approach comes from the Rishonim?"

    He certainly seems to feel that it was de Rossi (sp) who was departing from tradition, not himself.

    If you would like I can try to find something more substantive.

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  44. Even if - and I mean if - de Rossi was departing from tradition, that doesn't mean that Maharal wasn't also, in his own way.
    I'm not saying that Maharal felt that he was departing from tradition. I am asking if there is anywhere that he claims that his approach to Gemara is based on specific Rishonim. I don't think he does.

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  45. Even if - and I mean if - de Rossi was departing from tradition, that doesn't mean that Maharal wasn't also, in his own way.
    I'm not saying that Maharal felt that he was departing from tradition. I am asking if there is anywhere that he claims that his approach to Gemara is based on specific Rishonim. I don't think he does.


    Was the concept of "Rishonim" completely well-defined in the time of the Maharal (middle-late 16th century)?

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  46. I don't know. But any earlier source will do!

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  47. I don't think anyone claims he received his "derech of penimiyus" directly from written commentaries of the rishonim.
    But that doesn't make him an complete innovator in the slightest.
    As I mentioned, he recieved his "derech of penimiyus" from the mystical tradition (like the Zohar did with mitzvos) and was simply the first to apply it more broadly and more systematically to the TB.

    He was ostensibly coming to EXPOSE a layer of depth to Chazal that no-one exposed before (at east in writing). I'm sure the kabbalists had an esoteric way of interpreting the entire Talmud before the Maharal came along!

    Only those who reject mysticism altogether would accuse him of INVENTING that depth out of whole cloth.

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  48. I don't think anyone claims he received his "derech of penimiyus" directly from written commentaries of the rishonim.

    Actually, I think some people here were claiming that. But I'm glad to hear that you're not!

    But that doesn't make him an complete innovator in the slightest.
    As I mentioned, he recieved his "derech of penimiyus" from the mystical tradition (like the Zohar did with mitzvos) and was simply the first to apply it more broadly and more systematically to the TB.


    That is an innovation! To say that when Chazal were to all intents and purposes speaking about science, they were actually speaking about metaphysics, is an innovation!

    And why do you say that the kabbalists had an esoteric way of interpreting the entire Talmud before Maharal? Just because someone believes in a metaphysical framework, this does not mean that you believe that other people are always referring to it.

    I agree that he was ostensibly coming to EXPOSE a layer of depth to Chazal that no-one exposed before. But if no-one exposed it before, how do you know that he wasn't inventing it?

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  49. "Check out this web page http://books.google.com/books?id=keXGJjd4ThcC&pg=PA273&lpg=PA273&dq=when+was+pilpul+created&source=bl&ots=z_1j9ZvcrW&sig=smW2a6H-cBSHWCzxJnp_Wb2oQvw&hl=en&ei=8LqmSoiZCuL7tgeV6ZysCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6#v=onepage&q=when%20was%20pilpul%20created&f=false. "

    It's all conjecture, and that's being nice.

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  50. I guess u know better huh? Also did u check out that maharsha? What are u gonna say about that?

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  51. "I agree that he was ostensibly coming to EXPOSE a layer of depth to Chazal that no-one exposed before. But if no-one exposed it before, how do you know that he wasn't inventing it?"

    Not that I agree with this point of view, but l'shitosom kabbala and mysticism is essentially a continues revelation as the Zohar and the later the Ariza"l and Chassidus showed. Therefore to the mystical camp it is consistent to claim that the Mahara"l, with Ruach Hakodesh, was able to tap into the true metaphysical depth of what chaza"l was referring to, even though perhaps other rishonim did not see that. As you mentioned in a previous post it is all about epistemology. With regard to Judaism, a rationalist would use data and precedence to prove a case, a mystic relies on authority in order to know if something is legitimate.

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  52. >>"And why do you say that the kabbalists had an esoteric way of interpreting the entire Talmud before Maharal? Just because someone believes in a metaphysical framework, this does not mean that you believe that other people are always referring to it.
    ...But if no-one exposed it before, how do you know that he wasn't inventing it?"

    With the little exposure I've had to the kabbalistic system, it is quite apparent to me that it is all- encompassing.
    No detail of Jewish living is unaffected by it.
    From washing hands in the morning to the prayers before sleeping and everything in between; from saying kabbalistic prayers before prayers, prayers after prayers, prayers before each ritual; every Jewish and every mundane act is imbued with deep kabbalistic significance.
    Every verse, every letter, in the Written Torah has similar significance if not greater since it is the direct word of God.

    Therefore it is only natural that the holy text of the Talmud which is so central to Judaism itself and (produced by the Tannaic and Amoraic mystics themselves) MUST be imbued which similar significance. To leave it out would be a totally illogical disconnect within the whole system.

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  53. Oh, come on! That's a bit of a stretch! It's like someone saying that every statement that comes out of the mouths of today's Gedolim MUST be imbued with kabbalistic significance, since they are so central to Judaism!

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  54. "That's a bit of a stretch! It's like someone saying that every statement that comes out of the mouths of today's Gedolim MUST be imbued with kabbalistic significance, since they are so central to Judaism!"

    What??? A stretch about the Gemara that is considered to be all Ruach Hakodesh?

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  55. What do you mean "all ruach hakodesh"? Every word in the Gemara, or every word that Chazal say in the Gemara? And if the latter, is there any source for that in the Rishonim? From the Gemara itself, the pashtus is certainly not like that, e.g. in the cases where the Gemara is unsure of the basis for someone's statement, and of the various options offered, ruach hakodesh is only one of the alternatives.

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  56. "And if the latter, is there any source for that in the Rishonim?"

    So the gemara was COMPILED with ruach hakodesh, so says the Rambam.

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  57. "I guess u know better huh? Also did u check out that maharsha? What are u gonna say about that?"

    According to the twisted logic presented in that book, anything other than short halackik statements is pilpul...

    But it's not, that was not the pilpul the Maharal was talking about, as already stated. And it's not the pilpul that the Marsha is talking about. The Mahral was talking about building things on questions and answers, "a elephant on the head of a needle" and pilpul lichaded hasechel, not discussions, which was part and parcel of learning ever since moshe.

    Do yourself a favor, go look at a volume of the mahral's chidushim on shas.

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  58. So the gemara was COMPILED with ruach hakodesh, so says the Rambam.

    By which he certainly did not mean that every single statement in the Gemara was uttered with ruach hakodesh!

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  59. I believe that I saw in the Artscroll Rishonim (which was one of its early publications, along with its "Early Achronim" which I really enjoy) that Rashi was a kabbalist, and cited quotes from his peirush on SHAS. I will, bli neder, try to look at it to cite the Rashi's.

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  60. Ok Chaim, so I have shown you facts that say the Maharal was against this pilpul and you just say that it is irrelevent and when the maharasha says pilpul he didn't mean it. So in essence no matter what proof I show you it is all talking about something else.

    I have read many of the maharal's chiddushim on the gemorah. Not sure wha tyou are talking about. He was against the type of learning that had been going on in ashkenaz for a while. That is truth. I don't know where you get your information. Maybe wikipedia? True, he was against the pilpul of his time, but he was also against the pilpul approach in general. He advocated group learning and many other things that had not been accepted in ahskenaz.

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  61. RAv Slifkin, I think that anyone who cares to comment further should read this article in Hakira http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%204%20Eisen.pdf. If you haven't yet, I would. It discusses this whole thing and shows just exactly how the Maharal was innovative and it discusses the climate of the time of the Maharal and why this innovation was necessary.

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  62. To Chaim and E-Man:

    See Prof. Leo Levi's book called "Torah Study". He devoted an entire chapter on the references to "pilpul" in the classic literature:
    http://books.google.com/books?id=BrZhRrV_a_QC&pg=PA185&dq=pilpul#v=onepage&q=pilpul&f=false

    Methinks people have meant very different things by that term over the centuries...

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  63. Rabbi Slifkin,

    The issue of Hakirah you linked to has another interesting article about science vs. Torah issues in hilchos treifah.

    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%204%20Buchman.pdf

    (it also mentions Rabbi Feldman's letter regarding the banning of your books)

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  64. Rabbi,

    You know, when I initially read your post, I was left a bit confused. I think you should give a bit more background before you launch into your question. i.e. who is the Maharal, what was his contribution to Jewish intellectual history, etc.

    This way I, and other readers who may not know these things offhand can be with you when you make your argument.

    Like I was told when I learned how to write essays: Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em. Then tell 'em, and then tell 'em what you told 'em. Just a thought.

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  65. You wrote: Tell me, who before Maharal explained aggadatas in terms of metaphysics/pnimyus? And who before Maharal applied this approach to discussions in the Gemara that are not Aggadata, such as the dispute in Pesachim 94b?

    -Everyone has a unique chelek in Torah. Yeshaya hanavi was mechadesh things Dovid HaMelech wasn’t. So too with the Arizal and kabalah. Revelation comes to unique holy individuals. Chidushei Torah are endless. What's the problem?

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