Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sun’s Path at Night

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

Part 10: The Sun’s Path at Night

One of the most basic sources for saying that Chazal were fallible in scientific matters is the Gemara discussing various disputes concerning astronomy:

The Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed [within it]. Rebbi said: A response to their words, is that we have never found the Great Bear in the south and the Scorpion in the north. Rav Acha bar Yaakov objected: But perhaps it is like the axle of a millstone, or the hinges of a door socket.
The Sages of Israel say, During the day, the sun travels below the firmament, and at night, above the firmament. And the scholars of the nations say, During the day the sun travels below the firmament, and at night below the ground. Rebbi said: Their words seem more correct than ours, for during the day the wellsprings are cool and at night they steam. (Talmud, Pesachim 94b)

At face value, this passage is saying that Rebbi acknowledged that the Sages of Israel erred in believing that the sun travels behind the sky at night. (In the versions of the Gemara cited by some Rishonim, Rebbi’s concession was regarding the first dispute regarding the sphere and constellations.) But is this the true meaning of the Gemara? According to Rambam, yes:
It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory; for everyone treats speculative matters according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof. (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8)
Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam states likewise, both in his Letter on Aggados and in Milchamos Hashem. So does Tosafos Rid:
I have discovered that Rabbeinu Tam answered in the same manner as have I, except that his explanation followed the view of the sages of Israel, who say that the sun travels behind the covering of the firmament – above the sky – at night, whereas I have followed in my explanation the view of the gentile sages, who say that the sun travels below the earth at night, and whose opinion is the main one, as it says in the chapter “Mi Shehayah Tamei” (Pesachim 94b). (Tosafos Rid, Shabbos 34b, s.v. Eizehu)
Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi is explicit that this was a scientific dispute which was decided in favor of the non-Jewish scholars (this is in the context of his ruling that it is permissible to teach science to non-Jews):
In Pesachim, in Chapter Mi Shehayah Tamei, the Rabbis taught: The Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve [within it], and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed [within it]. Rebbi said, Their view appears more correct. The implication is that they were disputing each other, each side bringing proofs to support its position. If there were a prohibition [against teaching non-Torah knowledge to gentiles], how could [Chazal] have informed [the gentiles] of their proofs and disputed with them until Rebbi decided between them and said that their view appears more true? (Responsa Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi #57)
Rabbi Yitzchak Arama explicitly states that it was a scientific dispute in which the Sages erred due to their limited time spent studying astronomy:
If the stars themselves moved, as was thought by the Jewish sages who said that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, one might then conjecture that they moved of their own accord, and mistakenly conclude that they did so with their own independent power. But they are merely like nails affixed to the spheres [forming] their orbits, which carry them, and which are in turn carried by the great sphere… With regard to the rabbis’ teaching that the Sages of Israel say that the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, and the sages of the nations say that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed within it, the sages of the nations triumphed, and the Jewish sages conceded to their view, as it says in the tractate – for this means that the stars are bodies at rest, not moving independently, implying, in turn, that they have no independent abilities, doing whatever they do only because of God. This truth was discovered first by the gentile scholars and their kingdoms because of their immense efforts in pursuing this study [of astronomy], which they concentrated on in order to serve [the heavenly bodies]... in the foreign ways of their religions, which the Torah forbade; while the Jewish sages did not need to know [all this astronomy] – except as it related to the intercalation of months and the timing of the seasons and the new moons, necessary for the Torah and [its] commandments.... The rest they considered foreign and a waste of time – foreign matters that they were never permitted to study.... (Akeidas Yitzchak, Parashas Bo, Chap. 37)
Maharam Alashker[1] notes that the majority view is to accept the position of the non-Jewish scholars:
It is known and obvious that the description (given by Rabbeinu Tam) is true only according to the opinion of the sages of Israel, who believe that the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve within it, and that the sun travels behind the firmament’s covering at night. But the authors and commentators other [than Rabbeinu Tam], and also the Rambam… and the Geonim, accept the view of the gentile sages, that the sphere revolves and the constellations are fixed in it, and that the sun travels below the earth at night, according to which theory it is not necessary for the sun to travel through the thickness of the firmament or opposite the opening in it, for it is the sun that descends below the horizon, there being only one sunset… (Responsa Maharam Alashkar #96)
Lest one think that such an interpretation of the Gemara was only given by those Torah scholars who lived prior to the revelations of kabbalah, it should be noted that many prominent Torah scholars of more recent times also interpreted the Gemara in this way. Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach (Chavos Ya’ir) writes that the Sages of Israel were making errors in the factual reality:
The blemish of one who errs in the study of Kabbalah is greater than that of one who errs in astronomy… albeit the common denominator [of Kabbalah and astronomy] is that [such errors reflect] mistaken understanding of the factual reality. And [in astronomy, unlike Kabbalah] almost nothing is entirely agreed upon and not subject to dispute, as per the dispute between the Jewish and gentile sages regarding whether the sphere is fixed and the constellations revolve, or the sphere moves and the constellations are fixed in it. And see The Guide for the Perplexed Part II, the end of Chapter 8 and Chapter 9, (where Rambam cites the dispute and says that the knowledge of astronomy in Talmudic times was incomplete); and the Tannaim dispute whether the sun travels above the covering of the sky at night or below the earth… (Responsa Chavos Ya’ir #210)
Rabbi Moshe Schick stresses that the opinion of the Sages of Israel was not received from Sinai (in stark contrast to the claim of R. Schmeltzer!) and was a speculation that has now been scientifically proven false:
Regarding the question concerning what is written in Tosafot, Berachot 2b, s.v. “dilma”; in Rashi, Pesachim 93b, s.v. “mei’alot hashachar”; and in several other places – that the sun enters into the thickness of the firmament [at night] – which contradicts the conclusion of the Gemara on Pesachim 94b, where Rebbi says, “Their view (that the sun travels beneath the earth at night) appears more correct (nir'in) than our own”; and where the word nir'in is used, Tosafot on Eruvin 46b, s.v. “Rabbi Eliezer etc.” writes that we rule accordingly, and the Rosh, in Chapter Kol Sha’ah, and the Tur and Beit Yosef (Orach Chaim 455) concur, as they quote from Rabbi Eliezer of Metz that the sun travels beneath the earth at night, and we therefore knead [matzah] dough only with water that has sat at least one night since being drawn. Even more perplexing (than Rashi and Tosafot’s contradiction to the Gemara's conclusion) is the statement established in the Shabbos prayers: “He who opens daily the doors of the gates of the east and breaches the windows of the sky; He brings the sun out from its place, and the moon from its resting-place, and illuminates the world” – which implicitly concurs with the view that the sun enters the thickness of the firmament [at night].
It seems to me that such matters that were not received by Chazal as halachah leMoshe miSinai, but rather were said according to their own reasoning. And with something that is not received [from Sinai] and has no root in our Torah, but rather comes from investigation and experience, it is difficult to resolve conclusively. And there are many occasions when the sages determined, according to their own intellects, that a matter was a certain way, and the subsequent generation analyzed the matter further and disputed the earlier view. Any conclusion drawn from experimentation is can be considered only probable, [not certain]. Indeed, in the dispute on Pesachim 94b, Rebbi said that the gentile sages’ view appeared more correct, but he did not express certainty; for a matter like this, which is investigated only by finding evidence [of one view or the other], cannot be resolved with certainty. In truth, according to the reading of the Gemara found in The Guide for the Perplexed, the Jewish sages recanted their position; but according to our reading, Rebbi said only that the gentile sages’ view appears (nir'in) more correct...
Regarding the fundamental issue: the text of the [Shabbat] prayer quoted above has already been questioned in Sefer HaBrit, ma’amar 4 – Shnei Me’orot, Chap. 20, where he explains that it is the poetic style to describe things based on how they appear to the human observer [as opposed to how they really happen]. Regardless, in our Gemara it is not decided one way or the other, and we must [therefore] observe the stringencies resultant from each view. Therefore with regard to water passing the night we implement the stringency resulting from the [gentile sages’] view; while Rashi and Tosafot described [the sun’s movement] according to the Jewish sages of the time [of the dispute in the Gemara]. Although scientists now agree – and it is apparent to the eye and by experimentation – that the sun travels below the earth [at night], the [Shabbat] prayer describes it based on how it appears to us... (Responsa Maharam Schick #7)
Chacham Yosef Chaim (the “Ben Ish Chai”) likewise, in contrast to R. Schmeltzer’s assertion that everything in the Gemara is a metaphysical truth received from Sinai, explains that the view of the Sages of Israel was a scientific speculation that has since been disproved by modern science:
Know that regarding what R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua say here regarding the motion of the sun, was said according to their intellectual assessment, according to whatever seemed true to them in the science of astronomy. And they did not determine these things and establish them as true; rather, each went according to whatever appeared to him in accordance with his principles of astronomy; they did not say these things as a tradition from their teachers. And therefore, nowadays, when the principles of astronomy are widespread, and they have devised observational tools for the stars and constellations and the globe and the elevations of the sun, they have seen and know many things that can be genuinely determined and universally agreed upon, [such as that] the sun travels below the earth at night on the other side of the globe… And if the Sages of Israel said their view [regarding the sun’s motion at night] from their tradition, how could it be said that the words of the non-Jewish scholars seem more correct? And how could one bring a proof from the argument regarding steaming waters to contradict matters that were received via tradition, Heaven forbid? Rather, it is certain that the Sages of Israel did not determine these things to establish them as true; rather, they said that their intellectual assessment suggests it according to the science of astronomy that they possessed in their era, and they only suggested it as a possibility… (Chacham Yosef Chaim, Benayahu, Bava Batra 25b)
There are many, many more such views; I have merely cited those that are most prominent and explicit. The overwhelming consensus of Rishonim and Acharonim is to interpret this account in the Gemara at face value, that Rebbi conceded that the Sages of Israel had been bettered by the non-Jewish scholars in astronomy.

But when R. Schmeltzer cites this section of the Gemara, in chapter 27 (p. 134), the only view from the Rishonim that he cites is that of Rabbeinu Tam, who held that the non-Jewish scholars only had more powerful arguments but the truth lay with the Sages of Israel. R. Schmeltzer completely ignores Rambam, Tosafos Rid, Rav Yitzchak Arama, Maharam Alashkar, and the others, merely parenthetically referring the reader to his later establishing of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s statement as being a forgery! And while he cites a number of Acharonim who follow in the approach of Rabbeinu Tam or Maharal, he does not mention the view of Chavos Ya’ir, Maharam Schick, Rav Hirsch, or the Ben Ish Chai.

Furthermore, what does R. Schmeltzer mean by citing Rabbeinu Tam as the only legitimate approach from the Rishonim? Does he likewise believe that the sun really does pass behind the sky at night? In a footnote, R. Schmeltzer cites several kabbalists who reinterpret Rabbeinu Tam’s position to be referring to a metaphysical reality. In the introduction, on p. 12, R. Schmeltzer likewise states that the statement of the Sages of Israel “is true and absolutely in accordance with its literal meaning, even though it is not so according to the eyes of flesh-and-blood,” explaining that the Sages of Israel were making a statement about the metaphysical reality.

Yet R. Schmeltzer neglects to mention that many other authorities interpreted Rabbeinu Tam quite literally. We have already noted that Tosafos Rid and Maharam Alashkar understood Rabbeinu Tam in this way, and they pointed out that Rabbeinu Tam’s view has been rejected. Lechem Mishneh (Hilchos Shabbos 5:4) likewise interprets Rabbeinu Tam in accordance with his plain meaning, and notes that his view is problematic in light of the Gemara favoring the opinion of the non-Jewish scholars.

So, in discussing this Gemara, R. Schmeltzer ignores the vast majority of Rishonim and Acharonim in favor of the opinion of a single Rishon, and he furthermore ignores how several Acharonim interpreted this Rishon in accordance to with its plain meaning. Again, he is forced to do so, since according to R. Schmeltzer’s definition of heresy, all these authorities are guilty of espousing heresy.

[1] Note that R. Schmeltzer, on p. 95, cites Maharam Alashkar’s statement that the relationship of his generation to that of the Rishonim was like that of a monkey to a man. R. Schmeltzer equates this to mean that Chazal spoke entirely with ruach hakodesh and were infallible; but from the statement of Maharam Alashkar regarding the dispute in Pesachim, he was clearly not of this view.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mathematical Errors

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

Part 9: Mathematical Errors

In the introduction to Chapter 5, R. Schmeltzer stresses that “attributing ‘error’, Heaven forbid, in any way, to Chazal’s words in the halachah and its reasons and its details that are explained in the Gemara, is heresy, Heaven forbid, in the concept of Torah min HaShamayim.” This may sound fairly normative, but R. Schmeltzer is not merely referring to accepted halachic opinions in the Gemara. He reiterates that “every single word and letter of Chazal was received from Sinai” (emphasis added). R. Schmeltzer states that this even applies to statements that the Gemara rejects as being refuted or that the Gemara determines were said badusa (“in error”).

Now, this is not only bizarre, it is also clearly not the approach of most Rishonim. In a footnote (any positions of the Rishonim that explicitly refute R. Schmeltzer’s approach and which I have managed to raise to public attention are only ever dealt with in a footnote), R. Schmeltzer discusses the statement of Tosafos (Eruvin 76b) that Rabbi Yochanan and the Gemara in Sukkah erred in interpreting a position stated by the judges of Caesarea. R. Schmeltzer places the word “erred” in quotes, and proceeds to explain that one should not, Heaven forbid, think that Tosafos means that it is an error in the ordinary sense of term. Instead, it was certainly a legitimate alternative viewpoint and was certainly something that was received at Sinai. In a circular argument, R. Schmeltzer claims that if Rabbi Yochanan’s statement was truly an error, it would be bittul Torah to study it (a view that numerous people have also heard from Rav Moshe Shapiro).

But this is clearly not the meaning of Tosafos. The kind of error being discussed by Tosafos is not one of sevara or methodology, where different viewpoints are possible, and where one can say that eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim. Rather, it is a mathematical error. Tosafos says that Rabbi Yochanan and the Gemara in Sukkah misunderstood a statement by the judges of Caesarea to mean that the diagonal of a square is equal to twice the length of its side. This is a simple mathematical statement, and it is one that is in error. Tosafos states that Rabbi Yochanan subscribed to this understanding of the judges of Caesarea, and that the Gemara in Sukkah rejected it precisely because it is mathematically inaccurate.

Further confirmation of this understanding of Tosafos (as if any were needed) can be found in the other Rishonim. Rashba expresses surprise at Tosafos attributing a simple mathematical error to Chazal, and he gives an alternate explanation, but he does not deny that Tosafos does indeed say this! Ran likewise expresses surprise that the judges of Caesarea erred in a simple mathematical matter, and cites an alternate explanation of Rabbi Yochanan’s misunderstanding of what the judges of Caesarea were saying, which somewhat lessens the error, but still leaves Rabbi Yochanan making genuine errors of both interpretation and mathematics. Tosafos HaRosh states similarly. Tosafos Rid expresses surprise that Rabbi Yochanan and the judges of Caesarea erred in such a simple mathematical matter, and leaves it as an unresolved difficulty, but does not say that it is inconceivable for any error to have been made. Yet R. Schmeltzer does not cite any of these Rishonim.

R. Schmeltzer does cite the Vilna Gaon, who states that one should not, Heaven forbid, state that there was an error here. But this is exactly why the Vilna Gaon gives an alternate explanation of the entire passage in the Gemara. The Vilna Gaon does not deny that Tosafos was indeed attributing a genuine error!

Thus, R. Schmeltzer has totally ignored the views of the Rishonim, and has misrepresented the view of the Vilna Gaon. But he was forced to do so; since they refute his insistence that everyone is obligated to believe that “every single word and letter of Chazal was received from Sinai.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch

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

Part 8: Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch

Following Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, the second most explicit discussion of Chazal’s fallibility in the scientific era is found in the letters of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, which also discuss the status of aggadah:

In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of God’s law – the receivers, transmit­ters, and teachers of His Toros, His mitzvos, and His interper­sonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine – except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai… We find that Chazal themselves considered the wisdom of the gentile scholars equal to their own in the natural sciences. To determine who was right in areas where the gentile sages disagreed with their own knowledge, they did not rely on their tradition but on reason. Moreover they even respected the opinion of the gentile scholars, admitting when the opinion of the latter seemed more correct than their own.
…We are not to budge from the road to life shown us by our rishonim when they made a major and intrinsic dis­tinction between statements made as transmissions from God to Moshe and statements made as Aggadah. Their very names speak for themselves. The former were transmitted from mas­ter to disciple, and their original source is a human ear hearing from the mouth of Moshe who heard at Sinai. The latter, though transmitted from master to disciple (for many aggadic statements are introduced by a disciple in the name of his mas­ter and sometimes even in the name of the master’s master), have their origin in what the originating scholar stated as his own opinion in accord with his broad understanding of Tanach and the ways of the world, or as statements of mussar and fear of G-d to attract his audience to Torah and mitzvos.

In dealing with these important letters – also unacceptably relegated to a footnote (p. 224) – R. Schmeltzer follows Rav Moshe Shapiro’s lead and denounces the letters as forgeries. He rates the content of these letters as heresy “along the lines of Azariah de Rossi’s Me’or Einayim.”

This claim is based on the fact that the letters from Rav Hirsch were unsigned and were not written in his handwriting. However, Professor Mordechai Breuer, the greatest expert on Rav Hirsch in our day, noted to me that it was the custom for family members to make copies of correspondence. He laughed when I told him that there were people claiming the letters to be forgeries.

R. Schmeltzer claims that there is no basis for attributing them to the “tzaddik Rav Hirsch.” This is simply false. Rav Hirsch’s letters were part of a lengthy exchange with Rabbi Hile Wechsler, and Rabbi Wechsler’s original handwritten letters are extant. To maintain a belief that the Hirsch letters were forged, one would have to claim that somebody was consistently intercepting the letters that Rabbi Wechsler was sending, and was writing responses in a style and handwriting that fooled Rabbi Wechsler into thinking that he was corresponding with Rav Hirsch and continuing the correspondence! This is absurd. The Wechsler letters prove beyond doubt that the Hirsch letters are genuine.

R. Schmeltzer claims that the publisher of Shemesh Marpeh (the anthology of Rav Hirsch’s letters) asked Rav Shimon Schwab about these letters, and Rav Schwab “forbade him from publishing them, as though they were written by his hand, and therefore they were omitted.” If that were to have been the case, then Rav Schwab would have been mistaken. However, it seems instead that R. Schmeltzer has either been misinformed or is misrepresenting what happened. R. Schwab did advise the editor, Rabbi Eliyahu Meir Klugman, not to publish the letters but this was because the letters would be considered controversial and cause problems for him.[1]

What is especially disturbing is that the proof of the letters’ authenticity has already been pointed out a long time ago. A friend of mine in Bayit Vegan, Rabbi Matis Greenblatt, brought the Wechsler letters to Rav Moshe Shapiro’s attention. Much later I heard that when someone else asked Rav Moshe about Rav Hirsch’s letters, Rav Moshe no longer claimed that the letters were forgeries and replied instead that “Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash.” So why is Chaim B’Emunasom still claiming that the letters are forgeries?

R. Schmeltzer must concede that the Hirsch letters are genuine. Which in turn means that either Rav Hirsch was espousing heresy, or that the fundamental message of R. Schmeltzer’s book is false.


[1] Lawrence Kaplan, in “Torah U-Madda in the Thought of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch,” BDD vol. 5 (Summer 1997) p. 28, reports a conversation that he had with R. Schwab and says that he is citing him practically verbatim as follows: “The editor consulted with me, and I advised him not to publish them. I told him that the letters are controversial and likely to be misunderstood, and that his publishing them would just bring him unnecessary tzorres.”

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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim

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

Part 6: Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim

Chapters 66 through 70 are devoted to the Moreh Nevuchim, which is the thorn in the side of anyone trying to deny the authenticity of the rationalist approach. After all, in the Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam does everything that R. Schmeltzer defines as being heretical: denying the truth of some of Chazal’s statements, interpreting many of Chazal’s statements allegorically, deriving truth from secular philosophy, and interpreting many parts of the Written Torah allegorically. R. Schmeltzer provides several ways of doing away with the Moreh:

· It was written merely for outreach (and cannot be taken as either Rambam’s own approach, or as a legitimate approach at all; according to this, it is apparently acceptable to teach heresy for the sake of outreach).

· Its true meaning is in its secret kabbalistic depths (and it cannot be interpreted in the way that it was interpreted by Rambam’s official translator Shmuel Ibn Tibbon and hundreds of years of subsequent interpretation).

· It was written before the revelations of kabbalah (pp. 276, 291).[1]

R. Schmeltzer is free to follow those approaches. However to claim that these are the only possibilities, and that the Moreh (with a non-kabbalistic interpretation) is not considered by any authority to represent a legitimate approach within Judaism, is unacceptable. Especially with regard to the statements in the Moreh Nevuchim that we are discussing – those noting that some scientific pronouncements of Chazal were in error – there have been many, many authorities in more recent generations who took the same approach in these matters.[2]


[1] I must confess that I find it odd that in certain circles it is acceptable to say that Rishonim were ignorant of the revelations of kabbalah, but not to say that they were unaware of the discoveries of modern science.

[2] For example, R. Yair Chaim Bacharach, Rav Hirsch, Maharam Schick, Ben Ish Chai, Rav Herzog, etc. See for an extensive list.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rambam and Demons

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 5: Rambam and Demons

On p. 290-291 R. Schmeltzer cites the Vilna Gaon’s well-known declaration that Rambam was led astray by the “accursed philosophy” to deny the existence of demons and other such phenomena. Of course it is not acceptable, even in R. Schmeltzer’s circles, to simply dismiss the Rambam in this way, and so in the footnotes, R. Schmeltzer cites numerous views which explain that Rambam did not really deny the existence of demons. (There are, in fact, many more such views beyond those cited by R. Schmeltzer.) So R. Schmeltzer presents the reader with two options: either Rambam was perverting Judaism, or he has been misunderstood and did not really deny demons. R. Schmeltzer is forced into this view because his book’s fundamental point is that everyone is unequivocally obligated to accept the truth of everything in the Gemara.

Noticeably absent from the numerous sources cited by R. Schmeltzer are the views of the Gerona kabbalist R. Shlomo b. Meshullam da Piera,[1] R. Yosef b. Shem Tov,[2] R. Yosef Shalom Delmedigo,[3] R. Aviad Sar-Shalom Basilea,[4] Abarbanel,[5] R. Yosef Ergas,[6] R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson,[7] and R. Menashe ben Yisrael,[8] all of whom note that Rambam indeed denied the existence of demons, and most of whom did not consider Rambam to have thereby perverted Judaism.

Since this topic has not been raised in the controversy over my works, and I have not written on it until now, it is possible that R. Schmeltzer and his maskimim were entirely unaware of these sources. I would hope that these sources will be given due consideration, including their ramifications for the book’s entire thesis.

Furthermore, the Vilna Gaon himself was unambiguous in his view of Rambam’s position in these matters – that Rambam was led astray by the accursed philosophy to deny the existence of demons and other such phenomena, even though their existence is attested to in the Gemara. R. Schmeltzer clarifies in a footnote that the Vilna Gaon did not mean to denigrate Rambam himself, Heaven forbid, and reports the account of how the Vilna Gaon spoke highly of the Rambam and wished to share his portion in the World-to-Come. Yet first of all, this story appears to be nothing more than a folktale, with no authentic basis.[9] Second, the Vilna Gaon quite clearly meant to condemn Rambam’s position as a denial of the truth of the Talmudic accounts. Thus, R. Schmelzer is saying that if the Vilna Gaon’s understanding of Rambam is correct (and most would indeed agree that Rambam was influenced by Aristotelian philosophy), Rambam’s views are to be considered invalid, even heretical. But in citing the Vilna Gaon’s position authoritatively, R. Schmeltzer is overlooking the fact that there was a prominent Rishon who argued with the Gaon’s condemnation: Rambam himself. He did not feel that he had been led astray to pervert the Torah! Is the Vilna Gaon of so much greater stature than Rambam for R. Schmeltzer to say that he is able to absolutely disqualify Rambam’s views?!


[1] In Yediyot HaMachon LeCheker HaShirah HaIvrit 4 (1938) pp. 33, 55. This and the following sources are taken from Marc Shapiro, Maimonides and his Interpreters, pp. 105-108.

[2] His comment is printed in his translation of Crescas’ Bittul Ikkarei HaNotzrim p. 93.

[3] Eilim (Amsterdam 1628) p. 83.

[4] Emunas Chachamim p. 15b.

[5] Commentary to Devarim 18:9, p. 173.

[6] Shomer Emunim, p. 11.

[7] Responsa Shoel U’Meishiv 4:87.

[8] Nishmas Chayyim 3:12.

[9] See R. Yisrael Yaakov Dinstag, “Was the Gra Opposed to the Philosophical Approach of the Rambam?” [Hebrew], Talpiot 4:1-2 (Tammuz 5709) p. 254.

Interlude: "Does anyone take this sefer seriously at all?"

In the comments to the previous post, Reuven Meir asked the following question:

R. Slifkin, from your posts so far, it seems to me this "sefer" you are responding to is so poorly researched and even deceptive that I do not understand why you are taking the time to even respond!
Does anyone take this sefer seriously at all?

Reuven Meir asks a good question. As shown in the last few posts, and as I will continue to demonstrate in the next ten posts (and I could write many more if I had the stomach for it), this sefer denies the existence of an entire school of thought in the history of Torah scholarship, ignores inconvenient writings of the Rishonim and Acharonim or dismisses them as forgeries or as having been written only for kiruv, and it even edits and rearranges the words of the Rishonim to make them conform with its ideology. Can anyone take it seriously?!

The unfortunate answer to this question is yes.

First of all, the Gedolim of the charedi world who wrote long, effusive haskamos to this work apparently take it seriously, and certainly give the impression that they do. That alone is cause for grave concern.

Second, one can find this book recommended by the moderator at While the Frumteens moderator is not someone that I would take seriously, there are many impressionable teenagers who do take him seriously.

Third, and most troubling to me, is that there are many yeshivos and seminaries which cater to the non-charedi community but which employ teachers who are devoted disciples of Rav Moshe Shapiro and the other Gedolim who endorsed this book. Derech/Ohr Somayach, Toras Shraga, Darchei Binah and Michlala come to mind, but there are many others; even Gruss and NCSY employ such people! There is no doubt that these teachers take this book seriously. They could easily recommend it to their students, but even without that, the approach in this book informs and reflects their outlook. It never ceases to amaze me that people who are passionate supporters of the rationalist approach do not realize that when they send their sons and daughters to yeshivah and seminary, they are being taught by people who consider the rationalist approach to be unacceptable and even heretical, and they may well absorb this attitude. You can look at all the information given by the schools in Israel listed at YU's website and you will not see a hint of this, but it doesn't take much research to make it clear that this is a real possibility. It doesn't concern me if charedim educate charedim in this way, but it does concern me when they educate non-charedim in this way.

So, yes, there is a real danger of people taking Sefer Chaim B'Emunasam seriously, and that is why its grievous perversions of Jewish intellectual history must be exposed and denounced.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rambam on Machlokes

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 4: Rambam on the Definition of Torah from Sinai

Chapter 10 of Chaim B’Emunasam is dedicated to showing that “every dispute, question and opinion in Shas was given at Sinai.” According to R. Schmeltzer, one is obligated to accept that when there is a dispute or question in the Gemara, every position was received by Moshe Rabbeinu at Har Sinai. I was utterly bewildered to see R. Schmeltzer citing Rambam’s introduction to his Commentary to the Mishnah in support of this claim, since only a few days earlier I had been listening to a shiur about how Rambam held precisely the opposite view and how he was challenged by others for this very reason. This is made explicit in the Mishneh Torah:
דברי קבלה אין בהן מחלוקת לעולם, וכל דבר שתמצא בו מחלוקת בידוע שאינו קבלה ממשה רבינו
יד החזקה - הלכות ממרים פרק א הלכה ג

Rambam’s view was that only undisputed matters in the Gemara can be said to have been received from Sinai; anything about which there is dispute is ipso facto not received from Sinai. How on earth could R. Schmeltzer be citing Rambam in support of the view that both sides of a disputed matter are from Sinai?
Upon comparing R. Schmeltzer’s citation from Rambam with the original, I realized how this had happened. R. Schmeltzer had omitted certain parts from Rambam’s discussion, in some cases not even including an ellipsis or “et cetera” to indicate where he had done so! Here is the paragraph as cited by R. Schmeltzer; the highlights are his:
חלק השלישי, הדינין שהוציאו על דרכי הסברא ונפלה בם מחלוקת והעיון בדבר כו' ותמצא בכל התלמוד שהם חוקרים על טעם הסברא שהוא גורם המחלוקת בין החולקים כו' כו' אבל מי שיחשוב שהדינין שנחלקין בהם כמו כן מקובלים מפי משה, וחושבים שנפלה המחלוקת כדרך טעות ההלכות, או השכחה, או מפני שאחד מהם קבל קבלת אמת והשני טעה בקבלתו, או שכח, או לא שמע מפי רבו כל מה שצריך לשמוע, ויביא ראיה על זה מה שנאמר (סנהדרין דף פח ע"ב), משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשר כל צרכן רבתה מחלוקת בישראל ונעשית תורה כשתי תורות, זה הדבר מגונה מאד והוא דברי מי שאין לו שכל ואין בידו עיקרים ופוגם באנשים אשר נתקבלו מהם המצות, וכל זה שוא ובטל. ומה שהביאו להאמין באמונה הזאת הנפסדת, הוא מיעוט הסתכלותו בדברי החכמים הנמצאים בתלמוד כו' אבל מה שאמרו, משרבו כו' והעיקרים כמו כן הנתונים לזה כו' לא מפני שטעו בהלכות, ושהאחד אומר אמת והשני שקר כו' ומה יקר וגדול זה העיקר במצות:

As cited by R. Schmeltzer, it sounds as though Rambam is saying that one should not think that disputes in the Gemara are due to errors in transmission from Sinai or intellectual shortcomings, and that one position in a dispute is false. The inference is that all Chazal’s statements are true, and all reflect an accurate transmission from Sinai of unique permutations. In other words, Rambam is saying that one should not think that in a dispute, one view is not from Sinai; they are both from Sinai.
Yet this cannot be, since as we have seen Rambam say plainly and unambiguously in the Mishneh Torah, only undisputed matters in the Gemara can be said to have been received from Sinai; anything about which there is dispute is ipso facto not received from Sinai. So how did R. Schmeltzer manage to present Rambam as saying the opposite? Once again, he has edited Rambam’s words in order to give them a different spin. When we look at the full discussion in the original text, we see Rambam’s true view. Rambam begins by noting that the halachic aspects of the Torah SheBe’al Peh can be divided into several categories. The first two categories both include matters that were transmitted from Sinai:
לפיכך היו חלקי הדינין המיוסדים בתורה על העיקרים האלה שהקדמנו נחלקים לחמשה חלקים:
החלק הראשון, פירושים מקובלים מפי משה, ויש להם רמז בכתוב, ואפשר להוציאם בדרך סברא, וזה אין בו מחלוקת, אבל כשיאמר האחד כך קבלתי אין לדבר עליו:
החלק השני, הם הדינים שנאמר בהן הלכה למשה מסיני, ואין ראיות עליהם כמו שזכרנו, וזה כמו כן אין חולק עליו
Now we come to the third category of laws, which in contrast to the previous two, were not received from Sinai, but rather were derived via exegeses. The highlighted words in this quote are those that R. Schmeltzer chose to cite:
החלק השלישי, הדינין שהוציאו על דרכי הסברא ונפלה בם מחלוקת, כמו שזכרנו, ונפסק הדין בהן על פי הרוב, וזה יקרה כשישתנה העיון, ומפני כך אומרים (יבמות דף עו ע"ב) אם הלכה נקבל ואם לדין יש תשובה. אבל נפלה המחלוקת והעיון בדבר שלא נשמע בו הלכה, ותמצא בכל התלמוד שהם חוקרים על טעם הסברא שהוא גורם המחלוקת בין החולקים, ואומרים במאי קא מיפלגי, או מאי טעמא דר' פלוני, או מאי בינייהו, והם מביאים אותו על ענין זה ברוב מקומות. וזוכרים הטעם הגורם למחלוקת, כגון שיאמרו רבי פלוני מחזיק טענה פלונית, ופלוני מחזיק טענה פלונית וכדומה לו. אבל מי שיחשוב שהדינין שנחלקין בהם כמו כן מקובלים מפי משה, וחושבים שנפלה המחלוקת כדרך טעות ההלכות, או השכחה, או מפני שאחד מהם קבל קבלת אמת והשני טעה בקבלתו, או שכח, או לא שמע מפי רבו כל מה שצריך לשמוע, ויביא ראיה על זה מה שנאמר (סנהדרין דף פח ע"ב), משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשר כל צרכן רבתה מחלוקת בישראל ונעשית תורה כשתי תורוה, זה הדבר מגונה מאד והוא דברי מי שאין לו שכל ואין בידו עיקרים ופוגם באנשים אשר נתקבלו מהם המצות, וכל זה שוא ובטל. ומה שהביאו להאמין באמונה הזאת הנפסדת, הוא מיעוט הסתכלותו בדברי החכמים הנמצאים בתלמוד. שהם מצאו שכל הפירוש המקובל מפי משה הוא אמת, ולא נתנו הפרש בין העיקרים המקובלים ובין תולדות הענינים, שיוציאו אותן בעיון. אבל אתה אל יכנס בלבך ספק, שמחלוקת ב"ש וב"ה, באמרם (ברכות פ"ח, דף נא ע"ב), מכבדין את הבית ואחר כן נוטלים לידים, או נוטלין לידים ואח"כ מכבדין את הבית, ותחשוב שאחד משני הדברים האלו אינו מקובל מפי משה מסיני, אבל הטעם שהוא גורם להיות חולקים, הוא מה שנזכר בתלמוד (שם נב ע"ב), שאחד מהם אוסר להשתמש בעם הארץ והשני מתיר. וכן כל מה שידמה לאלו המחלוקות שהם ענפי הענפים:

אבל מה שאמרו, משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשו כל צרכם רבתה מהלוקת בישראל, ענין זה מבואר, שכל ב' אנשים בהיותם שוים בשכל ובעיון ובידיעת העקרים שיוציאו מהם הסברות, לא תפול ביניהם מחלוקת בסברתם בשום פנים, ואם נפלה תהיה מעוטא, כמו שלא נמצא שנחלקו שמאי והלל אלא בהלכות יחידות. וזה מפני שדעות שניהם היו קרובות זה לזה בכל מה שיוציאו בדרך סברא. והעיקרים כמו כן, הנתונים לזה כמו העיקרים הנתונים לזה. אבל כאשר רפתה שקידת התלמידים על החכמה ונחלשה סברתם נגד סברת הלל ושמאי ובם נפלה מחלוקת ביניהם בעיון על דברים רבים, שסברת כל אחד ואחד מהם היתה לפי שכלו, ומה שיש בידו מן העיקרים. ואין להאשימם בכל זאת. שלא נכריח אנחנו לשני חכמים מתוכחים בעיון להתוכח כשכל יהושע ופנחס, ואין לנו ספק כמו כן במה שנחלקו בו, אחרי שאינם כמו שמאי והלל או כמו שהוא למעלה מהם, שהקב"ה לא צונו בעבודתו על ענין זה. אבל צונו לשמוע מחכמי הדור, כמו שנאמר (דברים יז), אל השופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם. ועל הדרכים האלו נפלה המחלוקת, לא מפני שטעו בהלכות, ושהאחד אומר אמת והשני שקר. ומה מאד מבואר ענין זה לכל המסתכל בו. ומה יקר וגדול זה העיקר במצות:

This is based on the Hebrew translation used by R. Schmeltzer; in those of Rav Kapach and Rav Shilat, widely considered more accurate, matters are even clearer. Here is the first paragraph in the Kapach translation, in which the most important phrases are in bold:
החלק השלישי, הם הדינים שנלמדו באחת המדות, ובהם נופלת מחלוקת כמו שאמרנו, ונפסק בהם הדין כדעת הרוב לפי הכללים שהקדמנו, במה דברים אמורים כשהדבר שקול, ולכן אומרים אם הלכה נקבל ואם לדין יש תשובה. ולא תפול מחלוקת ומשא ומתן אלא בכל מה שלא שמענו בו קבלה, ותמצאם בכל התלמוד חוקרים על דרכי הדין שבגללם נפלה מחלוקת בין החלוקים ואומרים במאי קא מיפלגי, או מאי טעמא דר' פלוני, או מאי ביניהו, כי יש שהם הולכים בדרך זו בענין זה במקצת מקומות ומבארים סבת המחלוקת ואומרים שפלוני סומך על דבר פלוני ופלוני סומך על דבר פלוני וכיוצא בזה. אבל סברת מי שחשב שגם הדינים שיש בהם מחלוקת קבלה ממשה, ונפלה בהם מחלוקת מחמת טעות בקבלה או שכחה, ושהאחד צודק בקבלתו והשני טעה בקבלתו, או ששכח, או שלא שמע מרבו כל מה שצריך לשמוע, ומביא ראיה לכך מה שאמרו משרבו תלמידי שמאי והלל שלא שמשו כל צרכן רבתה מחלוקת בישראל ונעשית תורה כשתי תורות, הנה זה חי ה' דבר מגונה ומוזר מאד, והוא דבר בלתי נכון ולא מתאים לכללים, וחושד באנשים שמהם קבלנו את התורה, וכל זה בטל. והביא אותם לידי השקפה נפסדת זו מיעוט ידיעת דברי חכמים הנמצאים בתלמוד, לפי שמצאו שהפירוש מקובל ממשה וזה נכון לפי הכללים שהקדמנו, אבל הם לא הבדילו בין הכללים המקובלים והחדושים שנלמדו [בדרכי העיון]. אבל אתה אם תסתפק במשהו ודאי לא תסתפק במחלוקת בית שמאי ובית הלל באמרם "מכבדין את הבית ואח"כ נוטלין לידים" או "נוטלין לידים ואח"כ מכבדין את הבית", שאין אחת משתי הסברות מקובלת ממשה ולא שמעה מסיני, וסבת מחלוקתם כמו שאמרו שאחד מהם אוסר להשתמש בעם הארץ והשני מתיר, וכן כל הדומה למחלוקות אלו שהם סעיפי סעיפי סעיפים.
As can be clearly seen when the text is studied in its entirety, and even more obviously in the superior translation, Rambam is saying that any halachos which involve dispute were not received from Sinai. When Rambam later says that one should not think that in a dispute, one view is correct and one view is false, his point is that one cannot say that such a dispute is regarding the truth of a law transmitted from Sinai; instead, such a dispute is regarding a law derived by the Sages via sevara, about which the understandable limitations of the human intellect will lead to disagreements; in the case of Shammai and Hillel, only a few disputes, but with their weaker disciples, many such disputes arose. Rambam’s view is that in a dispute, one should not think that one view is false, i.e. a perversion of that received from Sinai. R. Schmeltzer presents an edited version of the text which implies that both sides of a dispute are accurate representations of the tradition from Sinai, but clearly Rambam’s real position, as seen from the full text, is that neither is intended to represent a received tradition from Sinai.
Rambam continues to note two other categories of legal statements in the Gemara which were not received from Sinai. First are the decrees instituted to safeguard the Torah’s laws, which are subject to dispute, since people may not agree on their necessity:
והחלק הרביעי, הם הגזרות שתקנו הנביאים והחכמים בכל דור ודור, כדי לעשותם סייג לתורה. ועליהם צוה הקב"ה לעשותם. והוא מה שאמר במאמר הכללי (ויקרא יח), ושמרתם את משמרתי, ובאה בו הקבלה (יבמות דף כא.), עשו משמרת למשמרתי. והחכמים יקראו אותם גזרות. ולפעמים תפול בהם מחלוקת לפני החכם, שהוא אוסר כך מפני כך, ולא יסכים עליו חכם אחר. וזה הרבה בתלמוד, שאומרים רבי פלוני גזר כך, משום כך וכך, ורבי פלוני לא גזר. וזה כמו כן סבה מסבת המחלוקת. שהרי בשר עוף בחלב הוא גזרה מדרבנן, כדי להרחיק מן העברה, ולא נאסר בתורה אלא בשר בהמה וחיה אבל אסרו חכמים בשר עוף, כדי להרחיק מן האיסור. ויש מהם מי שלא יגזור גזרה זו, שרבי יוסי [הגלילי] היה מתיר בשר עוף בחלב, וכל אנשי עירו היו אוכלים אותו, כמו שנתפרסם בתלמוד (שבת דף קל.). וכשתפול הסכמה על אחת מן הגזרות, אין חולק עליה בשום פנים. וכשיהיה פשוט איסורה בכל ישראל, אין לחלוק על הגזרה ההיא. אפילו הנביאים בעצמם לא היו רשאים לבטל אותה. וכן אמרו בתלמוד, שאליהו ז"ל לא היה יכול לבטל אחד משמונה עשר דברים שגזרו בית שמאי ובית הלל. והביאו טעם על זה, לפי שאיסורן פשט בכל ישראל:

Finally are all the other decrees of the Sages, instituted for various purposes:
והחלק החמישי, הם הדינים העשוים על דרך חקירה וההסכמה בדברים הנוהגים בין בני אדם, שאין בם תוספת במצוה ולא גרעון. או בדברים שהם תועלת לבני אדם בדברי תורה. וקראו אותם תקנות ומנהגים. ואסור לעבור עליהם. וכבר אמר שלמה ע"ה על העובר עליהם (קהלת י), ופורץ גדר ישכנו נחש. ואלו התקנות רבות מאד, ונזכרות בתלמוד ובמשנה. מהם בענין איסור והיתר, ומהם בענין הממונות. ומהם תקנות שתקנו נביאים, כמו תקנת משה ויהושע ועזרא, כמו שאמרו (מגילה פ"א, דף ד.), משה תקן להם לישראל שיהיו שואלים ודורשים בהלכות פסח בפסח. ואמרו (ברכות פ"ז, דף מח ע"ב), משה תקן הזן בשעה שירד המן לישראל. אבל תקנות יהושע ועזרא הם רבות. ומהם תקנות מיוחסות ליחידים מן החכמים, כמו שאמרו, התקין הלל פרוזבול (שביעית פ"י), התקין רבי גמליאל הזקן (גיטין דף לד ע"ב), התקין רבן יוחנן בן זכאי (ביצה דף ה). והרבה בתלמוד, התקין ר' פלוני, התקין ר' פלוני. ויש מהם תקנות מיוחסות להמון החכמים, כמו שאמרו (כתובות דף מט ע"ב), באושא התקינו, או כמו שנאמר, תקנו חכמים, או תקנת חכמים, וכדומה לזה הרבה:
Rambam concludes this section with a summary, again reiterating that the first two of the five categories involve matters received from Moshe at Sinai – but not the others:

אם כן, כל הדינין הנזכרין במשנה נחלקים על אלו החמשה חלקים –
(1) ומהם פירושים מקובלים מפי משה, ויש להם רמז בכתוב, או אפשר להיות סוברים עליהם סברא.
(2) ומהם הלכה למשה מסיני.
(3) ומהם מה שהוציאו בדרך הקש וסברא ובו נפלה המחלוקת.
(4) ומהם גזרות.
(5) ומהם תקנות.

He then explains why both opinions are cited in a dispute, even that which is not adopted:
והטעם שהצריכם לכתוב המחלוקת הנופלת בין שתי הדעות, הוא מה שאומר, שההלכות, אילו נכתבו פסוקות, שאין בהם מהלוקת, ונדחו דברי החכם שאין הלכה כמותו, אפשר שיבא אחר כן מי שקבל הפך הדבר שעליו נפסקה ההלכה, מהחכם החולק על הדעת ההיא, או ממי שהוא נוטה לדעתו, ותכנס ספקא בנפשותינו ונאמר, איך יקבל זה האיש, והוא איש אמת, שדבר פלוני אסור, והמשנה אומרת שהוא מותר, או הפך הענין הזה. ובשביל זה, כשיהיו לנו כתובות אלו הדעות, יהיה נגדר זה הפרץ. כי כשיאמר המקבל, שמעתי שכך וכך אסור, נאמר לו, כן דברת, וזהו דעת פלוני, אבל רבים חולקין עליו, או פלוני חלק עליו, וההלכה כדעת החולק, מפני שסברתו יותר נכונה, או מפני שמצאנו דבר אחד מסייעתו (עדיות פ"א):

Finally, Rambam concludes with an explanation of why when Chazal rejected their own opinions in favor of others, the original is still cited. After all, since the original opinion was incorrect, what is the purpose of citing it? (Obviously, it was not from Sinai, otherwise there would be good reason to cite it!) Rambam explains that it was cited to demonstrate the intellectual honesty of Chazal in rejecting their own positions when disproved:
אבל הטעם שהצריכום לכתוב דברי יחיד ורבים, הוא מפני שאפשר להיות הלכה כיחיד, וע"כ בא ללמדך, כשתהיה סברה פשוטה, ואפילו ליחיד, שומעין לו, ואע"פ שחולקין עליו רבים. והטעם שהצריכום לכתוב דעת איש אחד, ואחר כן חוזר מן הדעת ההיא, כגון שאמרו, בש"א כך ובה"א כך וכך, וחזרו ב"ה להורות כדברי ב"ש, כדי להודיעך אהבת האמת והגברת הצדק והאמונה. שהרי אלו אנשים הנכבדים, החסידים, הנדיבים, המופלגים בחכמה, כשראו דברי החוק עליהם טובים מדבריהם, ועיונו נכון, הודו לו וחזרו לדעתו. כל שכן שאר האנשים, בראותם האמת נוטה עם בעל דינו, יהיה כמו כן נוטה לאמת, ולא יקשה עורף. וזהו דברי הכתוב (דברים יד), צדק צדק תרדוף. ועל זה אמרו חכמים, הוי מודה על האמת. רצו לומר, אף על פי שתוכל להציל נפשך בטענות תוכחיות, כשתדע שהם אמת דברי חבירך, אשר טענתך עליו גלויה מפני חולשתו, או מפני יכולתך להטעות האמת, חזור לדבריו והריב נטוש:
Halevay that others would adopt such intellectual honesty. It is shocking, utterly shocking, to see a rabbi actually edit the words of Rambam - in the previously discussed case, even rearranging his words!!! - so as to fundamentally distort Rambam's view in support of his own agenda.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rambam on Heresy

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 3: Rambam on Heresy

In the introduction to Chapter 3, R. Schmeltzer explains that the chapter will deal with how doubting any of the words of Chazal, whether in halachah or Aggadah, is heresy (see the scan of the page below). R. Schmeltzer takes the situation of such a “heretic” very seriously; in reference to this, he has a footnote quoting the Shulchan Aruch that one should bring about the death of such a person by any possible means. (Considering that R. Schmeltzer was at the forefront of the campaign to condemn my works as being heretical, I find this quite troubling.) But immediately following his words about how heresy includes doubting any of the words of Chazal, whether halachah or aggadah, he writes that it is our obligation in this regard to fulfill the words of the Rambam with regard to "not making our faith an abomination in lacking the correct understanding of words of wisdom." Yet it is quite clear that Rambam was referring to a specific class of Talmudic allegories, not to every statement of Chazal, since he himself considered several statements of Chazal to have been refuted by science:
It is one of the ancient beliefs, both among the philosophers and other people, that the motions of the spheres produced mighty and fearful sounds. ... This belief is also widespread in our nation. Thus our Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its orbit. ... Aristotle, however, rejects this, and holds that they produce no sounds. ... You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Sages. The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favor of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel." It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory; for everyone treats speculative matters according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof. (Guide for the Perplexed 2:8)

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. (Guide for the Perplexed 3:14)

In the opinion of all who are knowledgeable in science, the words of the stargazers are all lies. I know that if you will search you may find isolated statements from the Sages of the Talmud and the Midrashim, which show that at the time of one's birth, the stars will cause him some specific circumstance. This should not be a problem; just as it is not proper to follow various obscure opinions when it comes to a matter of halachah, so too it is not right to discard things which are reasonable and have been proven to be true, to reject them and base oneself on the words of an individual Sage who may have been unaware of the facts, or whose words may be an allusion [and not to be taken literally], or may only refer to a specific time or incident which happened to him. (Letter to the Sages of Montpellier)

In the first quotation in this chapter, to support his claim that it is heretical to doubt any statement of Chazal, R. Schmeltzer cites Rambam’s description of a makhchish maggideha as a heretic. But Rambam explicitly defines makhchish maggideha as “someone similar to Tzaddok and Baytus,” who Rambam explains denied the very concept of an Oral Torah (Perush haMishnayos, Sanhedrin 11:3). He certainly did not intend it to refer to someone who denies any statement of Chazal, as he would then have been defining himself as a heretic!
In a footnote, R. Schmeltzer attempts to deal with this obvious problem by citing Rav Moshe Cordovero’s position that since the sefiros are part of Torah SheBe’al Peh, the status of makhchish maggideha also applies to one who denies sefiros, and by extension, any part of Torah SheBe’al Peh. But this is Rav Moshe Cordovero’s extension of Rambam’s position; it is not Rambam’s position! One can choose to adopt the position that it is heretical to doubt any of the words of Chazal whatsoever, but one cannot draft Rambam in support of this.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rambam on the Definition of Torah from Sinai

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 2: Rambam on the Definition of Torah from Sinai

In the very first paragraph of the introduction to the work, where R. Schmeltzer explains that the goal of the work is to demonstrate the sanctity in every single statement of Chazal, he enlists the support of Rambam, with the following quotation regarding the words of Chazal:
...שהעתיקו איש מפי איש, מפי משה רבינו מסיני... נמצא, שכולם מה' אלקי ישראל
(רמב"ם יד החזקה - הקדמה לספר יד החזקה)

R. Schmeltzer uses Rambam’s words in reference to his claim that every single statement of Chazal was transmitted to Moshe by Hashem. But when Rambam says that “they are all from God,” he is not referring to every statement of Chazal! This is abundantly clear without having to cite Rambam’s statements in the Moreh about how Chazal sometimes erred in science and other such statements by Rambam. One only needs to look at the sentence immediately preceding this quote, in which Rambam notes that the Gemara also includes laws that were innovated by Batei Din subsequent to Sinai:
וענין שני הגמרות הוא, פירוש דברי המשניות, וביאור עמקותיה, ודברים שנתחדשו בכל בית דין ובית דין, מימות רבינו הקדוש ועד חיבור הגמרא. ומשני הגמרות, ומן התוספתות, ומספרא וספרי, מכולם יתבאר האסור והמותר, הטמא והטהור, החיוב והפטור, הפסול והכשר, כמו שהעתיקו איש מפי איש, מפי משה רבינו מסיני:

Even worse is when this source is cited again in the first chapter. The introductory paragraph to the chapter (p. 21) explains that the purpose of the chapter is:
to demonstrate that all the words of Chazal, including halachos and aggados, and that which does not include laws, was received “man from man, from Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai” (quotes are in original)

The quoted text is from Rambam’s introduction to the Mishneh Torah, indicating that in the view of Rambam, even aggados were received from Sinai – which has no basis whatsoever in the writings of Rambam. The citation from Rambam appears on the next page, as the second quote enlisted in support of the chapter’s thesis, as follows:
וענין שני הגמרות הוא, פירוש דברי המשניות, וביאור עמקותיה, ודברים שנתחדשו בכל בית דין ובית דין, מימות רבינו הקדוש ועד חיבור הגמרא. ומשני הגמרות, ומן התוספתות, ומספרא וספרי, מכולם יתבאר האסור והמותר כו' כמו שהעתיקו איש מפי איש מפי משה רבינו מסיני וכו' נמצא מרב אשי עד משה רבינו עליו השלום, ארבעים דורות. ואלו הן... ומשה רבינו מפי הגבורה. נמצא, שכולם מה' אלקי ישראל:

From R. Schmeltzer’s citation, it seems that after discussing the contents of the Gemara, Rambam concludes that it is all from God, transmitted to Moshe at Sinai. But upon checking this in the original, I was stunned to see that R. Schmeltzer has inverted the order of the text of Rambam! Here is the original citation, with the text that was quoted by R. Schmeltzer in bold:
...נמצא, מרב אשי עד משה רבינו עליו השלום, ארבעים דורות. ואלו הן... ומשה רבינו מפי הגבורה. נמצא, שכולם מה' אלקי ישראל:
כל אלו החכמים הנזכרים, הם גדולי הדורות. מהם ראשי ישיבות, ומהם ראשי גליות, ומהם סנהדרי גדולה. ועמהם בכל דור ודור, אלפים ורבבות, ששמעו מהם ועמהם. רבינא ורב אשי, הם סוף חכמי הגמרא. ורב אשי, הוא שחיבר הגמרא הבבלית, בארץ שנער, אחר שחיבר ר' יוחנן הגמרא ירושלמית, בכמו מאה שנה. וענין שני הגמרות הוא, פירוש דברי המשניות, וביאור עמקותיה, ודברים שנתחדשו בכל בית דין ובית דין, מימות רבינו הקדוש ועד חיבור הגמרא. ומשני הגמרות, ומן התוספתות, ומספרא וספרי, מכולם יתבאר האסור והמותר, הטמא והטהור, החיוב והפטור, הפסול והכשר, כמו שהעתיקו איש מפי איש, מפי משה רבינו מסיני:
גם יתבאר מהם דברים, שגזרו חכמים ונביאים שבכל דור ודור, לעשות סיג לתורה, כמו ששמעו ממשה בפירוש, שנאמר (ויקרא יח, ל) ושמרתם את משמרתי, עשו משמרת למשמרתי (מועד קטן ה' ע"א). וכן יתבאר מהם, המנהגות והתקנות, שהתקינו או שנהגו, בכל דור ודור, כמו שראו בית דין של אותו הדור...

In the original text, Rambam first discusses the explanation of the mitzvos, which is how he defines Torah SheBe’al Peh. He then describes the transmission of this through the generations, and concludes that section by saying that “they are all from God.” After this, Rambam states that the Gemara also includes matters that were innovated after Sinai. Rambam does not say that these are from God! And it is perfectly clear that he would not include Aggadata in this category either. But R. Schmeltzer has reversed the order of Rambam’s sentences, placing his statement that “they are all from God” at the end, so as to make it seem as though Rambam is saying that everything printed in the Gemara is from Sinai!

Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: 1

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


Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom: HaEmunah BeChazal UveDivrehem HaKedoshim
is a newly published book by Rabbi Reuven Schmeltzer of Monsey. Its subtitle is: “A selection from the great ones throughout the generations in the matter of the tradition of faith, and the sanctity and truth of all the words of the Sages, and the methods of approach to studying concealed topics in Aggadah and matters relating to science.” Rabbi Schmeltzer was one of the primary figures involved in arranging the ban on my books in 2004/5, and this book is his attempt at providing what he considers to be the Torah-true perspective on these matters.
The book features glowing rabbinic approbations from Rav Michel Lefkowitz (Bnei Brak), Rav Moshe Shapiro (Jerusalem), Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel (South Fallsburg), Rav Elya Weintraub (Bnei Brak), Rav Yaakov Hillel (Jerusalem), Rav Yitzchak Scheiner (Jerusalem), Rav Avraham Levin (Chicago), and Rav Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood), all of whom were signatories to the ban on my works and some of whom were extensively involved in it. In these approbations, Rav Scheiner writes that R. Schmeltzer’s book presents “virtually every possible perspective,” Rav Kotler refers to the “great breadth” (hekef rav) of the discussion, and Rav Elya Ber Wachtfogel laments that there are those who claim that there are alternate strains of the mesorah to that described in the book. Rav Moshe Shapiro, who describes the topic of this book as one of the “fundamental principles of faith,” is R. Schmeltzer’s principal rebbe and he is quoted at length throughout the book; from my knowledge of numerous people’s conversations with him, it accurately represents his approach.
There are many, many positions in this book that I dispute on theological or empirical grounds. For example, this book takes the position that Chazal’s statements about science all come from Sinai, and are thus all correct; I believe otherwise, based on both theological and empirical grounds. However in this essay, I am not raising such theological and empirical disputes. Instead, I am restricting the critique to something much more basic, fundamental and indisputable: the misquotations of the positions of the Rishonim themselves, which in some cases involves literally distorting their words (i.e. editing them to give them a different meaning), and in other cases involves unacceptable selectivity. In the introduction, on p. 17, R. Schmeltzer claims that “the book is nothing other than a compilation of sources which represent the mesorah.” In a series of posts, I will be investigating that claim.

As usual, people are welcome to respond in the comments section. Comments should be polite and should actually contribute a point. Please use a name, preferably yours. When I have finished with all the posts, I will make the series available for download as a single PDF document.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Important Matter Coming Up

The topic of Rashi, evolution and bias will have to take a back burner for now. I have to post a very important document, related to Rav Moshe Shapiro and certain other Gedolei Torah, for which I have been waiting for a while to receive clearance from a certain person, which I just received. I think that I will post it in installments, to enable each part to be discussed separately, and then put it up as a single PDF document. I would like it to receive as widespread publicity as possible.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My Latest Mistake

I made a big mistake with the Rashi article that I published in Hakirah.

Not that I think that my conclusion was wrong. When I published the article, I was taking a huge risk - after all, I have only seen a tiny fraction of Rashi's extensive writings, and someone could have easily found a Rashi that would blatantly refute my conclusion. Yet, while there are those such as Rabbi Zucker who feel that my article is demonstrably wrong, I don't feel that it is has been disproved or even weakened in the slightest.

My mistake was in choosing Hakirah as the journal in which to publish it, instead of a regular academic journal. Hakirah is a very fine journal, aimed a rationalist Orthodox audience, but "rationalist" is a relative term, and besides, since it is available for free online, it reaches a much wider readership than its target audience.

I had thought that since Marc Shapiro's book (listing all those who disputed Rambam's principles) is old news, and given Raavad's statement that "greater and better people" than Rambam were corporealists, and since the Tosafist R. Moshe Taku was a known corporealist, then even if people did not like or disputed my conclusion, they would not be appalled at the very idea of a Rishon such as Rashi being a corporealist.

In this, I was utterly wrong.

Many people were absolutely horrified. Some bookstores in Brooklyn had to remove Hakirah from their shelves. A letter in Hakirah, from a very intelligent and educated person, stated that he found the notion to be "absolutely incredible." Of course, it is possible for someone to legitimately disagree with my conclusions, and to consider it to be gravely in error, but the reaction was clearly something far beyond that, and besides, most of those who reacted strongly didn't even have any alleged disproofs of my arguments. It was the very idea of a Rishon such as Rashi being a corporealist that they could not accept.

But where did I miscalculate?

It might be that although people are aware of Shapiro's sources, and the statement of Raavad, and the position of R. Moshe Taku, they are only aware of it in a very detached, remote sense. It's kind of like how a smoker feels about the evidence that smoking causes cancer - he is sort of intellectually aware of it, but doesn't really feel it to be true, and he is genuinely surprised when he is diagnosed with cancer. People don't take Raavad's testimony seriously, and R. Moshe Taku is too obscure a figure to care about. When the idea of a Rishon being a corporealist is actually starkly presented as being genuinely the case, they find it hard to come to terms with it. The notion of what they consider to be a spiritual giant of inconceivable greatness and brilliance, having a belief that they consider false and heretical, is understandably hard to stomach.

Someone else had a different take on it. They claimed that if I had said that a different Rishon was a corporealist, or even that an Amora was a corporealist, people would not have minded so much. But Rashi is such a beloved figure, whose words are pored over by everyone since they are children, that they cannot abide the thought of his being a corporealist.

There are other factors, too. Many people follow Rambam and feel that if someone is a corporealist, they lose their portion in the World-to-Come. They feel that a corporealist has failed as a Jew, certainly as a Torah scholar, and it is obviously inconceivable to say that about Rashi (which I agree with). S. pointed out that most people today view corporealism not merely as wrong, but also as foolish, and they can't imagine a great person subscribing to such a view.

Whatever the reason, many people were very offended by the article. And, as one Rosh Yeshivah communicated to me, this harms my cause with regard to the issues over which the controversy over my books occurred. Convincing people of the legitimacy of the rationalist approach vis-a-vis creation and Talmudic science will be much harder when the person most visibly identified with that approach takes other positions that are much harder for people to stomach.

Thus, I made a mistake. Hopefully I will learn from it.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Arguing With Creationists and Other Biases

A few years ago I was pushed by some Orthodox creationists (people who believe that all animal life was created separately, less than 6000 years ago) to have a debate on the merits of evolution. I responded by asking what kind of evidence, hypothetically speaking, would make them accept it. They dodged and hedged and would not answer the question. Of course, no realistic amount of evidence would convince them, since their opposition to evolution was fundamentally religious in nature. So I pointed out that the idea of having a scientific debate was a farce. A scientific discussion is one in which evidence is presented and conclusions are reached solely on the basis of the evidence. I don't mind having scientific discussions; I don't mind having religious discussions; but a religious discussion masquerading as a scientific discussion is inappropriate (not to mention pointless!)

I was reminded of this by a comment from Rabbi Zucker to this post. I asked him whether he acknowledges that most Orthodox Jews are very biased when it comes to weighing up the arguments for and against Rashi being a corporealist. After all, they possess tremendous reverence for Rashi as a Torah scholar and tzaddik par excellence, and they also maintain that corporealism is heresy. To my amazement, Rabbi Zucker did not agree. He says that, objectively speaking, one cannot know without a scientific survey, but what he believes (or likes to believe - he altered his phrasing) is that they are able to approach issues such as this without something that prevents unprejudiced consideration of the question. And naturally, he considers himself entirely unbiased, and seems to consider his statement to that effect as reason for one to believe that it is so.

I am at a loss for words. Would he likewise say that in arguments about the fallibility of Gedolim, Chazal's scientific knowledge, the age of the universe, one cannot know without a scientific survey that charedim are biased, and he would likewise believe that they are not? I guess that since in such discussions I would admit to now being biased since I have published opinions on these topics (although obviously I make my best attempt to evaluate everything objectively), Rabbi Zucker would say that I have less credibility, since I admit to being biased and they do not!

As It Were, So To Speak

Everyone knows that the word k'vyachol means "as it were," "so to speak." These in turn mean that the idea being conveyed is not actually true, but is being spoken of "as it were" i.e. as if it were true, or "so to speak," following a manner of speaking. So, when the Gemara says that God is, k'vyachol, not wanting the offerings of the Jewish People, or that He is standing up, it means that although God did not actually not want the offerings of the Jewish People, and He does not actually stand up, we are only saying this following a manner of speaking, as if it were true.

But not according to Rashi!

The first instance in the Talmud where k'vyachol appears is in Yoma 3b:

קח לך משלך ועשה לך משלך ויקחו אליך משל צבור דברי רבי יאשיה רבי יונתן אומר בין קח לך בין ויקחו אליך משל צבור ומה תלמוד לומר קח לך כביכול משלך אני רוצה יותר משלהם

Here is the Soncino translation:

The expression ‘kah leka’ means ‘mi-sheleka [from thy own] and ‘aseh leka means mi-sheleka [taken from thy own funds], but we-yikehu eleka means [they shall take for them] from community funds; these are the words of R. Josiah; R. Jonathan said, Both ‘kah leka’ and ‘we-yikehu eleka’ mean from community funds, and what is intimated by saying ‘kah leka’ [take thee]? As it were, ‘I prefer your own [private means expended on this work] to the community's [expenditure]’.

In other words, although God did not actually disfavor the Jewish People's offering, it is described as though that was actually the case.

But let us look at the definition of k'vyachol provided by Rashi:

כביכול - אני שמעתי אם היה ציבור יכול להתכפר בשל יחיד הייתי רוצה, ואני אומר לפי שדבר קשה הוא לומר שהקדוש ברוך הוא קץ בישראל, אומר כביכול, כלומר על כרחינו יאמר כן, כאילו (אי) אפשר לומר כן, וכן כל כביכול שבתלמוד:

Amazing! Rashi explains k'vyachol to mean that the concept is "difficult for us to say" - for who wants to say that Hashem is undesiring of the Jewish People's offering? However, "against our will it is thus stated" - even though we don't like to hear it - "as though it were possible for us to say it." It's not "as IF it were true" - it IS true, but we hate to say it. It's not "following a manner of speaking" - it is the correct description.

Ritva elaborates upon Rashi's explanation:

כביכול בשלך אני רוצה יותר משלהם הפי' הנכון כפי' השני דפרש"י ז"ל דאמרי' כביכול מפני שהוא דבר קשה לומר כי הקב"ה קץ בקרבן צבור אלא דכיון שכתוב בתורה יכול אדם לאומרו וקרא ה"ק קח זה הקרבן של צבור ויהא חשוב כאלו הוא שלך שאני רוצה בו יותר:

Of great significance is that Rashi concludes his explanation of the term by saying that "such is the explanation of every occurrence of k'vyachol in the Talmud." Let us now turn to another occurrence, Megillah 21a. This is discussing the chiddush that when reading from the Torah, the one reading has to stand, which we learn from the Torah's description that God stood together with Moshe when teaching him the Torah. It goes against what one might consider to be the appropriate protocol; after all, when one goes to meet a king, the king remains seated while the petitioner stands.

אמר רבי אבהו דאמר קרא ואתה פה עמד עמדי ואמר רבי אבהו אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאומרו כביכול אף הקדוש ברוך הוא בעמידה

And in the Soncino translation:

R. Abbahu said: Because Scripture says, But as for thee, stand thou here by me. R. Abbahu also said: Were it not written in the Scripture, it would be impossible for us to say it: as it were, the Holy One, blessed be He, also was standing.

But this is not Rashi's explanation. Here, Rashi's comment is brief:

כביכול - נאמר בהקדוש ברוך הוא כבאדם, שיכול להאמר בו כן

But following Rashi's explanation in Yoma, which he says applies to every occurrence of k'vyachol, we see his view clearly. The concept is "difficult for us to say" - for who wants to say that Hashem, the King of kings, stood together with Moshe, whereas a mortal king does not lower himself to stand with his subjects? However, "against our will it is thus stated" - even though it is discomforting vis-a-vis Hashem's dignity - "as though it were possible for us to say it." It's not "as IF it were true" - it IS true, but we hate to say it. It's not "following a manner of speaking" - it is the correct description.

Thus, here we have yet another argument in favor of the proposition that Rashi had a corporeal view of God.

Rabbi Zucker, who continues to argue with me in the comments on this post, unsurprisingly rejects this argument. He claims that there is no issue of disrespect to Hashem here, and the reason for k'vyachol is that it is not literally true that Hashem stands. Rabbi Zucker claims that although Rashi is saying that it is true that Hashem stood, he is not saying that it is literally true, merely that it is figuratively true. (Of course, there is nothing in Rashi here that leads him to this explanation; he is saying it due to his conviction regarding Rashi's position which he claims is based on other sources.) Thus, he is explaining Rashi as follows: "It is difficult to say" that Hashem stood, because He does not literally stand, "but against our will it is thus stated," because it is allegorically true.

However, this is not at all viable, for two reasons. First of all, Rashi explains k'vyachol to mean that it is being stated "against our will" - i.e., we do not like the Torah's description. But why would we not like the Torah using an anthropomorphic expression in speaking about God as standing? The Torah uses anthropomorphic descriptions of God all the time!
Second, Rashi is explaining the Gemara's statement that "Were it not written in the Scripture, it would be impossible for us to say it." But if it is not literally true, it would not be impossible for us to say it! We use such anthropomorphisms all the time. Is it forbidden to say to someone that "Hashem will be happy if we do mitzvos," when it is clear that one is speaking allegorically?!

Thus, Rashi's view on k'vyachol, which is radically different from the conventional understanding of this phrase, serves as excellent further evidence for his being a corporealist.

(I would like to thank Rabbi Zucker for pointing me to this Rashi, although he probably regrets doing so!)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Deal Deal Deal Deal - UPDATED

UPDATE - See the important comments from Rabbi Bibi in the comments section.

I spent last Shabbos as scholar-in-residence at Congregation Magen David in Deal, New Jersey. It was a fascinating and wonderful experience, but the community is in great distress. With regard to the deal made by Dweck with the Feds to expose the deals of others in the community of Deal, Rabbi David Bibi weighed in with his view on the deal with this story in the Jewish Star, in an article that I found quite appalling; it stated that a true friend, when his friend's son turns up at the door with a body in a bag, helps him hide it and does not inform the authorities. Rabbi Josh Waxman has a fascinating analysis of the origins and message of this story. Meanwhile, I was very pleased to be sent the following response to Rabbi Bibi's article which was written by someone from the Sephardic community:


Nativ Winiarsky
President, Congregation Magen David of Belle Harbor

If the Orthodox Jewish community in general, and the Syrian Jewish community in particular, ever wanted greater evidence of the mire and morass it presently wallows in, it need look no further then the recent article by Rabbi David Bibi published on the front page of the Jewish Star edition dated August 7, 2009. (See web address above for article)

In the article, Rabbi Bibi pleads that we should be dan lekaf sechut to those Rabbis who recently found themselves arrested for a host of illegal transactions. In support of his argument, he cites to a story about a father and son engaged in a debate as to what defines a true friend. Seeking to educate his son on the value of a true friend, the father paints the picture of a son who “got into a fight with a guy at the bar, one thing led to another and [the son] killed him.” While the son’s acquaintances wanted no part in helping the son bury the dead victim, a true friend, Rabbi Bibi extols, would assist in burying the body. Thus the Rabbis recently arrested, like the son’s true friend, were merely helping a pour soul in need and no fault should lie at the door side of these benign souls.

One can’t help but wonder if this story is one Rabbi Bibi conjured up on his own or cut and pasted from a scene in Goodfellas with Joe Pesci playing the “friend” helping Henry Hill cut up the body parts to hide the evidence. The moral of the story portrayed by Rabbi Bibi would be laughable if not for the sadism to our Torah that it breeds and champions.

Does this Rabbi, who leads the Sephardic Congregation of Long Beach, actually believe that being an accomplice to murder is a true indication of friendship? To what end? What was the lesson learned? That the son can continue to get in fights at bars, kill those he chooses at his tainted discretion, taking solace with the knowledge that if he gets into trouble he can always count on his friends to hide the body?

This is our Torah? This is our Mesorah? These are the teachings we wish to convey from the pulpit and publish on the front page of “Jewish” newspaper?

With all due respect Rabbi Bibi, you have utterly lost your moral compass. Friendship is not engaging, encouraging, participating, aiding and/or collaborating in a heinous criminal act. Rather, the son’s true friends were those who would not cooperate with the murderer. The son’s true friends would be those who would shun the son at first sight so that he may come to understand that violence, murder, and the breaking of the law are not to be tolerated on our world. The son’s true friends would be those who report the murderer to the authorities so that justice can be dispensed and rehabilitation of the character of the murdered may hopefully follow.

Rabbi Bibi rhetorically asks what crimes the Rabbis committed in merely helping a man who pled with them that his children had no food on the table. In the first instance, if food was the issue, give the man money for food to eat with, not money to launder with. Moreover, if food was the only concern, why the ten percent fee which was retained by those who engaged in the transaction? Lastly, we must instill in the hearts of all that the ends simply do not justify the means. Irrespective of whatever good cause exists, we cannot evade and violate the law (and the halacha) in the process.

Rabbi Bibi ends his missive labeled “Don’t Point Fingers” by directly pointing his finger at the “traitor among us.” To the contrary, without the “traitor”, these criminal and illicit actions would have remained unimpeded and would have continued with no examination of the actions of the leaders of the community ever having been undertaken.

The fact that Rabbi Bibi has twisted and contorted the Torah to lend its imprimatur to these iniquitous actions is reprehensible for him. The fact that we as a community might allow Rabbi Bibi to remain in his position while he endorses such views is reprehensible for us. I have sent this letter to the leaders of the Sephardic Community so that no one could later plead ignorance either to the article or the uproar it has caused. Will they stand pat or will they take the necessary action to ensure that the honor and nobility of the Syrian Jewish community in particular, and the Torah in general is restored. Silence, to the extent it ever was, is no longer an option.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Facilitated Communication and the Munchausen-By-Proxy Case

According to those who claim to enable autistic people to transmit messages from above via Facilitated Communication, the woman from Meah Shearim accused of abusing her children is innocent. See here and here (scroll down). (Thanks to Rabbi Josh Waxman, in whose home I am typing this, for the reference, and for the hospitality!) I don't know the details of the case in Meah Shearim, but anyone tempted to believe in the validity of Facilitated Communication should read this superb article by Rabbi Dr. Aaron Hirsch Fried, which was, I believe, originally printed in condensed form in HaModia.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Stincus and other wonders

Over at the ZooTorah blog, I just posted an interesting essay about the Stincus marinus. There's also a post with one of the most extraordinary animal videos I have ever seen. Don't forget that you can subscribe to the ZooTorah mailing list by sending an email to

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Rashi, Adam and the Animals

I noticed that Professor Eric Lawee's fascinating article, The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah in Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals, which I referenced in my article on Rashi, is freely available online here. R. Gil Student also has a post on it here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kew Gardens Hills Presentation

Lectures by Rabbi Natan Slifkin in Kew Gardens Hills this Sunday, August 9th

7:45 pm (following mincha at 7:30 pm)
One People, Two Religions: Rationalism vs. Mysticism

9 pm (following maariv at 8:45 pm)
Worlds in Collision: The Dynamics of a Ban

Congregation Etz Chaim
147-19 73rd Ave, Kew Gardens Hills, NY 11367
The lectures are for men and women
Entrance Admission: $10 for one lecture, $15 for both

Download a flyer here

Monday, August 3, 2009

Corporealism Redux, part II

A continuation of my response to Levi Notik's letter.

So all we have is the remark of a couple of Rishonim that people (no one knows who exactly they are) in northern France believed in the corporeality of God.

So because it's a "couple of Rishonim" therefore their testimony is insignificant?!
And it's not a testimony about "people" - it's a testimony about Torah scholars. Raavad says that there were GREATER AND BETTER people than Rambam who were corporealists. And according to R. Shmuel ben Mordechai of Marseilles (I am returning to this claim), it was the majority.

Would it be justifiable for people in the future, say one thousand years from
now, to conclude that some Gadol in Brooklyn probably believed in a dead messiah since we have reports that many people in Brooklyn believed this at the time?

Bad moshol. There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of Jews in Brooklyn. There were not that many Torah scholars in France!

I also feel that, in his attempt to discern Rashi’s hidden view, R. Slifkin really neglects to analyze Rashi in the manner that a Rishon (and especially Rashi) deserves. For instance, when he cites the cases in which Rashi does go to great lengths to explain anthropomorphic expression in relation to God as metaphorical, he doesn’t bother to analyze Rashi’s language. It is a mistake to assume that the Rishonim, who wrote in such a precise manner, can be understood simply by skimming through their words.

I analyzed in what I considered the best way, and I certainly did not skim through his words. If you have an alternative analysis to offer, go ahead! Incidentally, I should mention that while I love R' Chaim Brisker al HaRambam, I consider his analyses to be non-historical.

In fact, I believe R. Slifkin makes an inexcusable mistake in his reading of a particular Rashi and completely distort Rashi’s meaning. He mentions the Onkelos’s
translation of Shemot 10:4 where he renders “And I carried you on the wings of vultures ..” as “And I caused you to travel (or transported) …” R. Slifkin is right that Onkelos, as he always does, is translating the verse in a way that negates any physical concept of God. The mistake, however, is in the way he portrays Rashi. He said that “But Rashi has a different reason for the alteration: Because it is disrespectful. He does not explain that Scripture altered matters to
“direct the ear,” but rather that Onkelos altered matters out of respect.” R. Slifkin explains Rashi as if he is disagreeing with Onkelos, but a plain reading of Rashi makes it clear that he absolutely endorsing Onkelo’s rendering of the verse. Perhaps R. Slifkin doesn’t understand what Rashi means when he says that “he fixed the statement as a way of honor (respect) for the Exalted One”, which is perfectly understandable (nothing wrong with not understanding Rashi), but it’s just wrong to represent Rashi as if he disagrees with Onkelos when he clearly endorses his

It's incredible that after talking about how I should study Rashi properly rather than skimming through it, you proceed to criticize one of my analyses based on completely misreading it! I was not saying that Rashi was consciously disagreeing with Onkelos - of course he was endorsing his translation! My point was that Onkelos himself considered that it was the Torah giving the kinnuy, whereas Rashi believed that Onkelos considered himself to be giving the kinnuy. Compare this Rashi with other Rashis where he believes that the Torah is not being literal.

As a matter of fact, the Ramban, on this very verse, quotes Onkelos and says exactly the same thing as Rashi, that Onkelos rendered the verse as “And I caused you to travel” as a “derech kavod shel maaleh”!

Talk about skimming and not reading carefully! Ramban is commenting on a DIFFERENT PHRASE of Onkelos than that which Rashi is commenting on!

Also, if Rashi’s comment is to be understood as a fundamental disagreement with Onkelos, it’s certainly peculiar that the Ramban, who knew Rashi’s comments
very well, does not pick up on this.

First of all, Rashi himself did not see himself as disputing Onkelos. And somebody who isn't focused on this issue right here would not notice what is going on. Everyone assumes that Rashi here is following his usual style of dibra Torah, even though he says something very different.

Another example of R. Slifkin’s reckless reading of Rashi occurs when he cites the Rashi on Shemot 33:22. Onkelos renders “I shall cover you with My hand” as “And I shall shield you with My word.” Rashi explains that Onkelos renders the verse in this manner because it is not respectful to imply that God needs to use an actual hand to perform this. The plain understanding of this, though R. Slifkin quickly dismiss this interpretation, is that Rashi is explaining that it is inappropriate to believe that God requires the use of a hand since God is not physical.

Again you have not carefully read what I wrote. The reason why the plain understanding does not work is that Rashi does not follow his pattern of saying that dibra Torah lesabber es ha'ozen; instead he follows a different model, of saying that Onkelos uses a kinnuy.

In fact, there are instances where it is clear that Rashi interprets verses metaphorically so as to avoid any implication of God possessing physical attributes. For example, in Leviticus 1:9 the verse states that “It is a burnt offering, an offering made by fire, a pleasant aroma to the Lord.” Onkelos renders it as “to be accepted willfully before God.” Onkelos is obviously negating the idea that God had a physical enjoyment of the smell. Rashi’s explanation is virtually a paraphrasing of Onkelos – Rashi says the verse means “a spirit of contentment before me.”

This is avoiding a certain class of anthroporphisms. Rashi did not believe that God is flesh-and-blood. Presumably a corollary is that He does not enjoy smells.

I want to reiterate that my fundamental point is that it is a methodological error to “deduce” anything from what someone didn’t say. We cannot know anything based on lack of commentary. There are a million reasons why someone didn’t say something.

As I pointed out in the first part of my response, you yourself employ this methodology. It is a perfectly legitimate methodology. Yes, there could be a million reasons why someone didn’t say something, but we can perform an evaluation as to which reasons are more reasonable and which are less reasonable.

Rashi wrote in such a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of
commentary. Trying to analyze what Rashi didn’t say is a very arrogant approach.

It is exactly because he wrote in a precise manner and presented us with a wealth of
commentary that we can perform such an analysis! He was not haphazard.

Insisting on analyzing Rashi’s “non-comments” is much like trying to “get the better of” Rashi... In essence you are saying that you are greater than Rashi because even though Rashi declined to make a particular comment, you are going to insist on finding out what is behind this lack of commentary by conducting an investigation that, logically, can only be external to our outside of Rashi.

I am sorry but that is simply a silly thing to say. I am trying to understand Rashi, based on his own values as expressed in his choice of comments, not "get the better of him"! This methodology is employed in yeshivos all the time, and you used it yourself in this letter.

Again, having read and enjoyed R. Slifkin’s book “The Challenge of Creation” twice, I am shocked that a scientist could advance such specious arguments.

This is very much part of the scientific method, and it is not at all specious. If, for example, we fail to find dinosaur fossils in a certain type of rock in a certain region, then it is possible that (A) there were no dinosaurs at that time, (B) there were dinosaurs at that time but not in that place, or (C) there were dinosaurs in that time and in that place but there simply weren't appropriate conditions for fossilization. If we find other dinosaurs from that time period in other countries, then (A) is ruled out. If we find that other creatures from the same time did fossilize in that place, then (C) becomes less likely. So we would conclude that B is most likely. Science often works by drawing likely conclusions from absences of evidence. Absences of evidence are, in some cases, evidence of absence. It depends on whether one has a large enough base to be able to conclude that the absence of evidence is conspicuous. And it also has to be put together with all the other types of evidence. I plan to write a post on the topic of convergence of evidence.