Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who Is Following The Rishonim?


"In those days spirits were brave, the stakes were high. Men were real men, women were real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri." - Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy

There is a certain serious misunderstanding going on with the Chazal/science issue, for which I must share some of the blame, since I have not been at all clear enough about it.

When I quote dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim who say that Chazal erred in their cosmological statements, as shown on Pesachim 94b, or in their mathematical statements, as shown on Eruvin 76b, I do not mean to claim that they would all fully endorse my approach on these issues. Similarly, some people have objected that just because Rishon X agreed that Chazal were wrong about the sun's path at night, it doesn't mean that he would freely say that Chazal were wrong in other places, where other members of Chazal don't acknowledge any error - and this is true.

Allow me to explain. Times change. In the medieval period, in both Christian and Moslem lands, there was a widespread belief in the general decline of civilization and mankind. A while ago, I posted about the topic of yeridas hadoros, and many people took it as self-evident that it doesn't mean that earlier generations were actually more intelligent. Well, the fact is that most Rishonim (with the probable exception of Rambam) took it for granted that earlier generations were indeed more intelligent - gentiles as well as Jews. And superior in every way. When the Noda B'Yehudah insisted that people in his time couldn't possibly be taller than people in antiquity, because of yeridas hadoros, this was not an unusual idea. Until relatively recently, it was a given that as one goes further back into antiquity, people (and animals!) were smarter, wiser, stronger, and longer-lived. Even when in the twelfth century, there gradually grew an awareness that contemporary figures could attain certain valuable insights, this was only delicately granted in a limited way by way of the metaphor of "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants." (See Melamed's "Al Kitfei Anakim" and the writings of Israel Ta-Shma for further discussion of this.)

So most of the Rishonim who acknowledged that Chazal were incorrect about the stars and spheres, and the sun's path at night, would have viewed that case as a peculiar aberration. They didn't believe that there were several other areas in which the knowledge of the latter generations exceeds that of the earlier generations.

On the other hand, these Rishonim are certainly not precedent for my opponents' approach, either. In fact, they oppose it. Allow me to explain further.

Times changed again. First of all, whereas in the medieval period, they actually didn't know much more about the world than Chazal knew, now we certainly do. The Rishonim would not have found other statements in Chazal that were conclusively scientifically disproved, but we do know of many such cases. Second, the whole idea that mankind in antiquity was more intelligent and wiser and stronger, etc., is no longer a popular belief. Nobody now accords Aristotle greater obedience than modern medicine.

There are several ramifications of all this. One is that of course you won't find these Rishonim discussing conflicts between Chazal and science in other areas, because they didn't know of any. Another is that those who seek to uphold the truth of all Chazal's statements have to use different tools than those available to the Rishonim. There were indeed Rishonim who argued for a general or even absolute truth to all Chazal's statements. But they did so because of a straightforward belief that in antiquity, people in general, and kal v'chomer Chazal, were more intelligent and wiser and knew much more about the world. Just as it would be ludicrous for a schoolchild to challenge Einstein about physics, it was ludicrous for anyone to challenge Aristotle about science - or Chazal. In recent times, however, nobody believes this. Thus, those who argued for Chazal's infallibility or near-infallibility had to devise new tools, such as arguing that Chazal were never speaking literally (as per Maharal), or claiming that Chazal benefited from ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav (as per Leshem). Furthermore, due to this new mechanism, and also for various other reasons, they ended up with the position that Chazal could never have been wrong about any scientific fact, especially something as basic as the sun's path at night - and they thereby went against the view of virtually all the Rishonim.

To put it another way: Azariah De Rossi claimed that he wasn't doing anything novel in his work Me'or Einayim, which was a critical evaluation of Chazal's statements about history. But of course he was. However, Maharal, who fiercely opposed to De Rossi and insisted that Chazal were speaking about metaphysical matters rather than history, was just as novel.

So what would these Rishonim (who acknowledge that Chazal erred about cosmology) say if they were alive today, with the knowledge that we have about the natural world? It's a pointless question. We just can't know. It's like the question of what Rambam would be if he were around today; everyone claims him as their own, from Briskers to Modern Orthodox to atheists.

Thus, the idea that we ourselves can point to Chazal being incorrect about a variety of things in the natural world can only be sourced to Rambam and a few other Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim. But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim.

29 comments:

  1. Expanding on your point slightly, during medieval times there WAS a general decrease in knowledge and life expectancy. The dark ages were a rollback of civilization, including knowledge and living conditions.

    So the belief was literally accurate for a long time.

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  2. Entertainingly enough, it is also no longer considered ludicrous for a school child to challenge Einstein in Physics

    See the case of Jacob Barnett, age12 who has taken on Einstein. (Although I suspect you were referring to this case anyhow)

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  3. In Europe the "antidote" for yeridat ha-dorot (or its Christian equivalent) was the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. And while I do agree with Akiva's point above, I think it is only really true for the Christian world -- the Muslim world managed to preserve and expand on classical learning to a great degree during that era. Nothing compared to what the Enlightenment would bring to Europe, though.

    It makes you wonder whether the ancient Romans and Greeks had a philosophy akin to yeridat ha-dorot. I don't know enough about their history to even make a guess.

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  4. On the issue of "sod hashem lireyav" if someone truly believes this then the Gedolim are terribly immoral and even criminals.

    How can one justify the Gedolim knowing how to cure cancer and not sharing this knowledge thereby letting millions of people (including many feiner yiddin) die?

    This is worse than the nations who did nothing during the Holocaust.

    And why is that we have not one instance where *Gedolim* help solve a scientific problem? And whenever *Gedolim* like Rav Miller discuss science, they embarrass themselves.

    In addition to the concept *Sod Hashem Lireyav* being historically ungrounded in the Rishonim, it is so patently absurd that I can't see why its worth taking seriously.

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  5. How can one justify the Gedolim knowing how to cure cancer and not sharing this knowledge thereby letting millions of people (including many feiner yiddin) die?

    I actually posed this question to an avreich in the Mir who insisted that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach knew the cure for cancer. He told me that Rav SZA knew that the generation wasn't ready for it.

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  6. Yet he needed Rabbi Moshe Tendler to show him a live baby delivered from a headless sheep?

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  7. When Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky became the Rov in a small town with no doctor, he acquired a Russian medical textbook and studied it himself so as not to violate the prohibition of living in a town with no doctor. I guess he only did that so as not to reveal that he knew about medicine already by way of "sod Hashem". :-)

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  8. OK, let's keep the comments on the topic of the post.

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  9. First, yasher koach on your blog. You do an excellent job of disabusing people of much of the nonsense that currently passes itself off as Torah. With regard to your position on the Chazal/science issue, I would like to argue the stronger point that Chazal's authority is limited to halacha and does not extend to yesodei hadas. The gemara (Sanhedrin 101b) explains that Jeroboam tricked Chazal (including the navi Achiya Hashiloni) into signing off on the worship of the eigel. It's proof is that otherwise Yaihoo who was a tzadik would not have continued the practice. Furthermore, the gemara says that Jeroboam himself was a gadol, and that he and Achiya were the greatest gedolim of their time. According to the Charedim, Yaihoo didn't make an error, he followed the gedolim. Furthermore, they are forced into the the ludicrous position of asserting that all those who worshipped the eigel acted correctly whereas those who did not were chayav misa.

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  10. Michael A. SingerApril 3, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    We can also see the motif of "yeridat haddorot" in the shortening of lifespans of the pre- and post-diluvian figures in Genesis. Although these texts are not referring to a decrease in knowledge, it's still viewed as a "decline" in terms of human conduct and morality.

    One might also compare the biblical age lists to the ancient Mesopotamian document called the "Sumerian King List," which also views the progression of time as a devolution. Each mythic king rules for less than his predecessor, and kingship is said to have been "handed down" from the gods, much like in Avot 1:1, where both oral and written Torahs are handed down by Yhwh to Moses and so on.

    In response to Jordan's query about whether this concept was known to the Greeks and Romans...there was an ancient Mesopotamian belief (found in stories like "Adapa") that all wisdom - spanning the gamut from magic to metallurgy - was given by Ea/Enki, the god of wisdom, magic, and the primeval ocean depths, to the 7 apkallu or "fish-sages," who then taught these arts to humankind. So, the myth of knowledge, understood in its broadest sense, as divine in origin is very ancient. It would seem that Greek myth also incorporates this motif, as in the story of Prometheus and the invention of fire.

    I wonder...must "yeridat haddorot" guide all (Orthodox) understanding of the past? Should we view it as simply a way to "compartmentalize" the broad sweep of history in simplistic/paradigmatic terms, but not as a crutch to lean on for support in the face of more modern critiques?

    Best,
    Michael A. Singer

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  11. Seeking the FactsApril 3, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    Thus, the idea that we ourselves can point to Chazal being incorrect about a variety of things in the natural world can only be sourced to Rambam and a few other Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim. But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim.

    The Rishonim may not necessarily attribute Chazal's perfect knowledge of the creation to ruach hakodesh, but they do in fact say Chazal's statements must always be believed to be true because they derived this knowledge from the Torah on some esoteric level. See the Menoras Hameor.

    By the way, I'm still waiting for you to post those letters you claim to have...

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  12. The Menoras HaMaor says that the Torah contains all knowledge (as does Ramban). He also says that we are obligated to believe that Chazal were correct in everything (although, without him addressing Pesachim 94b, it's difficult to know what he meant by that). But, as far as I know, he does not say that Chazal were correct because they derived all their knowledge from the Torah on an esoteric level.

    What letters are you waiting for? The one from Rav Scheinberg? Eventually I might get around to typing it out, but it's long, and I already summarized it.

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  13. One can (as some have done in the comments here) point to the decreasing lifespans in Torah as evidence of "yeridat hadorot," but the very opposite notion exists in the same verses. There are biblical figures mentioned in Genesis who were the first to make musical instruments, the first to make certain types of weapons, etc. That type of creativity and innovation implies that there was an increase in knowledge from the beginning of the world, and there is no reason to think that stopped or reversed considering the things we make today are better and more innovative and interesting.

    It seems to me that "Yeridas Hadoros" in the way you are describing it in this post, Rabbi Slifkin, is an anachronism. Do you really think that Rabbi Joe Haredi of today's popularly propagated vision of this concept is really what rishonim and aharonim of the past thought about that idea? I find it hard to believe.

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  14. "during medieval times there WAS a general decrease in knowledge and life expectancy"

    True for Europe. Not true for the Middle East, India, or China.

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  15. Do you really think that Rabbi Joe Haredi of today's popularly propagated vision of this concept is really what rishonim and aharonim of the past thought about that idea?

    My whole point is that it is not!

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  16. "But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim."

    This may be an argument of semantics rather than substance. The Menorat Hamaor said the following in "Candle" 2, Principle 1, Section 2, Chapter 2:

    "Everything that the Sages said in their midrashot and hagadot, we are obligated to believe in, just like we are obligated to believe in the Torah, and if we find in their words something that appears to us to be exaggerated or supernatural, we should blame the lack on our own understanding, not on what they said."

    It's true that he didn't say that Chazal derived what they said from ruach hakodesh, but he does say that what they said is always true - as true as Torah is. While other rishonim clearly argue, it is clear from this Menorat Hamaor that there absolutely is a basis in the rishonim (the Menorat Hamaor) to say that Chazal's pronouncements were all absolutely true. (Whether the source of that truth is ruach hakodesh or something else, seems to me to be irrelevant - the bottom line is that they are always - ALWAYS - correct). Again, you can argue with this Menorat Hamaor, but you can't say that one who espouses it "has no basis."

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  17. The point is that without Chazal's knowledge being based on ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav - which is a modern idea - then it seems to be based on a general idea of the superiority of the ancients.

    I think that this is significant, but I can understand that others may not.

    Still, I wonder what the Menorat HaMaor would have said about Pesachim 94b.

    But even granting that he may have said that Chazal would have been correct - so we have ONE rishon who says that Chazal were always correct, against dozens who clearly held otherwise!

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  18. If many in the charedi world intentionally reject the opinions of dozens of rishonim on this issue, and they have built a belief system based on this denial, then it appears that they are choosing conformity within their group over truth. I can't imagine that this is what G-d wants. How do we bring them around?

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  19. I don't object to their rejecting the Rishonim. They have reasons for doing so. I only object to their claiming that those who follow the Rishonim have no basis in classical Judaism.

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  20. But you did say: "similarly, some people have objected that just because Rishon X agreed that Chazal were wrong about the sun's path at night, it doesn't mean that he would freely say that Chazal were wrong in other places, where other members of Chazal don't acknowledge any error -and this is true."

    But it's not true in the way they imply it is true. They suggest that as a matter of principle and theology these Torah scholars only allowed themselves to say chazal were wrong about something where another member of chazal pointed it out. Otherwise it is ASSUR and sacrilege. You are not saying that this (other chazal members suggesting error) is an essential factor necessarily, just that there are other subjects which they had no way of knowing chazal could be wrong about and for that reason may not agree with 2011 Rabbi Slifkin, or we can't know if they would, correct?

    To me these are very different points and you conceded far too much to the illogic of your opponents w the above statement. They have been brandishing this stupidity for months about the claim that pesahim is only ok because members within chazal admitted to error. Until now you didn't seem to lend credibility to something I personally thought was a joke. Have I misinterpreted?

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  21. You also said: "Well, the fact is that most Rishonim (with the probable exception of Rambam) took it for granted that earlier generations were indeed more intelligent -gentiles as well as Jews. And superior in every way. "

    So how does this differ from the current joe haredi outlook on chazalic infallibility based on yeridat hadoros?

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  22. Raavad uses סוד ה' ליראיו as a source for some halachot. In fact, we have a whole book- שו"ת מן השמים that uses that concept as its main source.
    I believe that the contemporary neaning of that concept is somewhat different from what those Rishonim meant.

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  23. Student V - Because Joe Haredi doesn't apply it to gentiles. And his assumed reason for Chazal's knowledge is different.

    TRex - this is something that I discussed at length in my monograph.

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  24. "I don't object to their rejecting the Rishonim. They have reasons for doing so. I only object to their claiming that those who follow the Rishonim have no basis in classical Judaism."

    This has been bothering me for a while, and so now might as well be a good time to ask.

    Why this "hashkafic" focus on the rishonim? At first I thought it was just the area that you studied, but you seem to use it more strongly than just that.

    What disqualifies the Achronim, and why not focus on the Geonim? Or why not look at everything from the Taanaim to the Achronim?

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  25. But do you really think it makes sense to say that rishons x y and z only "admit" or only say that chazal were wrong about something because so-and-so said so? In other words only because some exalted member of chazal said the others in chazal were wrong otherwise they can't ever be determined to be wrong empirically or claimed as such? Is that really the approach of the rishonim - pure argument from authority as a philosophy to all things?

    And if so how then can the medical determinations of talmud be discarded by tosfos? Which member of chazal said "these might be wrong or found to be wrong later so I grant permission to say so" ?

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  26. But my opponents' claim - that everything Chazal said was with ruach hakodesh/ sod Hashem liyreyav/ a mesorah from Sinai - has no basis in any of the Rishonim.

    If this is so, then how and when did this become the position of the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Jews? Or am I mistaken and it's really only a very vocal minority of O.J.'s that believe this?

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  27. But they did so because of a straightforward belief that in antiquity, people in general, and kal v'chomer Chazal, were more intelligent and wiser and knew much more about the world. Just as it would be ludicrous for a schoolchild to challenge Einstein about physics, it was ludicrous for anyone to challenge Aristotle about science - or Chazal. In recent times, however, nobody believes this.

    It is precisely the rejection of this attitude which led to the the advances of the last 800 or so years in the West. Everything from polyphonic music to perspective in art to circulation of the blood to heliocentrism was a direct result of starting from rather than unthinking devotion to the past.

    Contrariwise the deaths of everything from academic subjects to civilizations comes when all effort is directed at cataloging commentaries on commentaries. Stasis becomes the end in itself. Those in charge must resort to unending stringencies to justify their position and prevent engagement with a world that does not conform the the model.

    Or as it is humorously stated "Don't eat the menu."

    Rav Slifkin, I'm guessing the man with such faith in Rav Auerbach was fairly young. He probably hadn't had too much experience with protracted deaths of people close to him. If he'd had to bury his first couple children his perspective might have been a little different.

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  28. Rabbi Slifkin,
    Thank you for all the work u put into the website, I went to chareidi schools growing up and had many of the same problems u experienced.
    I can't find your post about yeridas hadoros, could u tell me where to go.

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