Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rationalist Rishonim: Riaz

During the great "Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy" of 2004-2005, one of my opponents' favorite sources was the following Gemara:

Rabbi Yochanan sat and expounded, "The Holy One is destined to bring precious stones and pearls that are thirty by thirty (cubits) and hollow out of them an area ten by twenty and stand them at the gates of Jerusalem." A certain student scoffed at him: “Now that we do not even find such things in the size of a small dove’s egg, can ones of such size be found?!” After some time, he set out to sea in a ship, and saw ministering angels that were sitting and carving precious stones and pearls that were thirty by thirty and hollowing out ten by twenty. He said to them, “Who are these for?” They said to him, “The Holy One is destined to stand them at the gates of Jerusalem.” He came before Rabbi Yochanan and said to him, “Expound, my rebbe, it is fitting for you to expound; just as you said, thus I saw.” Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Empty one! If you hadn’t seen it, then would you not have believed it?! You are a scoffer at the words of the sages!” He gave him a look and he became a heap of bones. (Talmud, Bava Basra 75a)

At face value, this Gemara certainly appears to be an indictment of the rationalist approach. However, there were plenty of rationalist Rishonim, and they also knew about this Gemara. In my article Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists (freely available here) I showed how they understood the Gemara in a rationalist manner; ironically, they saw it as a condemnation of anti-rationalists!

I recently came across another authority who took a rationalist approach to such discussions in the Gemara. Rabbi Yeshayah of Trani II (known as Riaz, 1235-1300), grandson of Rid, was a prominent halachist. He was also of a strong rationalist orientation (although not to the same degree as, say, Rambam). In his introduction to Perek Chelek of Sanhedrin (which you can see here) he describes three approaches to take with outlandish aggadic material.

The first category are statements that were said by way of exaggeration. He says that there are many examples of this in the Talmud, and gives the Rabbah bar bar Chanah stories as an example. Presumably these exaggerations were given for dramatic effect, and/or to grab people's attention. This would be similar to Rashba's claim (in his commentary to Berachos 54b) that a Sage would sometimes insert outlandish statements in his derashah in order to prevent people from dozing off. (See too R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes in his Introduction to the Talmud, ch. 26 - and thanks to Dr. Marc Shapiro for the reference.)

Riaz's second category is that of accounts that happened by way of miracles, which God performs for the righteous. (This is why I mentioned that Riaz was not as much of a rationalist as Rambam, who would never say such a thing.) Curiously, Riaz again gives the example of the Rabbah bar bar Chanah stories, which he earlier claimed were said by way of exaggeration - apparently he felt that there aspects of both.

The third category given by Riaz is exceptionally interesting. He writes that "There are those Midrashim with which the intent of the Sages was to expound Scripture in all possible ways." Riaz first gives the following example:

See what one of the sages expounded in the first chapter of Taanis (5b), where he said, "Yaakov Avinu did not die." And another sage responded, "But was it for nothing that they eulogized him and mummified him and buried him? And he responded, "I am expounding a verse." By which he meant to say, I also know that he died, but I am expounding Scripture in any suitable way. And if this exegesis cannot be in accordance with its plain meaning, then it has a hidden meaning, according to which we can say that he did not die, just as they said that "the righteous are called 'living' even in death," as their name and memory and deeds exist forever.
Riaz then cites another Gemara which is very similar to the story at the beginning of this post:
Rabban Gamliel sat and expounded: [In the Messianic Era] the Land of Israel is destined to grow fresh bread and garments of fine wool, as it states, “May there be an abundance of grain in the land” (Ps. 72:16). A certain student mocked him, saying. “There is nothing new under the sun!” Rabban Gamliel said to him, Come and I will show you an example in this world, and he went and showed him mushrooms and truffles (as an example of instant bread-like food); and regarding the garments of fine wool, he showed him the fibrous growth around young palm-shoots. (Shabbos 30b)

Many people take this to mean that Rabban Gamliel was using these examples from today to help the student accept that one day there will even be food and clothing growing on trees. But Riaz explains that Rabban Gamliel did not mean any such thing:

He informed him that one should explain the Midrash in a way that is close to it. And the verse is coming to teach us that the Creator is destined to innovate great good in the world.

In other words, Rabban Gamliel's point was that in the Messianic era, sustenance will be remarkably easy and plentiful. (Which we see happening!)

Riaz later makes a fascinating statement, which is difficult to translate:


ועוד אמרו בתלמוד ארץ ישראל, בפרק שביעי של נזיר [ה״ב] וכי המדרשות אמנה הם, דרוש וקבל שכר, הא לך הדבר מבואר שלא אמרו חכמים המדרשים על דרך אמנה ועיקר, אלא להרבות טעמים למקרא, ולדורשו בכל פנים, ואולי יש בהן רמז.
And they further said in the Talmud of the Land of Israel, in Chapter Seven of Nazir: "But are midrashos a matter of emunah? Rather, expound and receive reward." Thus it is made clear that the Sages did not say Midrashim by way of dogma and fundamentals, but rather to increase insights into Scripture, and to expound them in every way, and perhaps (emphasis added) they contain an allusion.

Riaz later stresses that one must not scoff at such expositions. But neither should one take them literally, or as dogma.

(By the way: I have a great source to post on the topic of learning vs. working, but it is extremely long to translate, and I just don't have the time. If anyone is interested in volunteering, please be in touch.)

17 comments:

  1. please comment: everyone who learns torah comes to some general hashkafic derech on aa number of issues (e.g. rationalism), this may be due to nature, nurture or a combination of the two. since the yam hatorah includes datapoints which, simply understood, will support differing hashkafot (e.g. how much free will vs. how much predeterminrd), each learner will have to reinterpret some datapoints (which he believes are in the minority quantatatively or qualatatively) to be consistent with their general hashkafa on the issue. opposing hashkafists will not be impressed.

    KT
    Joel Rich

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post.

    There is a very nice website with approaches of Rishonim and Acharonim to Aggada based on the sefer Maayan Chatum by R. Moshe Philip as well as articles on aggada and a list of sefarim on aggada many of which can be found on Hebrew Books. A very valuable tool for those researching or teaching aggadot chazal.

    http://www.chazal.co.il
    The source you bring is linked there.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The fact that your opponent loved quoting this to you is very telling in light of the final line of the story.

    They see you as such a threat to their power that I'm sure they have had many violent fantasies about you.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "In other words, Rabban Gamliel's point was that in the Messianic era, sustenance will be remarkably easy and plentiful. (Which we see happening!)"
    I take it hyperinflation has not reached Israel yet; that, or you don't do the shopping in your family. Either way, food prices are rising exponentially; milk in the United States is reaching 5 dollars per gallon.
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-25/food-cost-gains-to-quicken-as-nestle-whole-foods-raise-prices.html

    ReplyDelete
  5. Why do you translate "remez" as allusion instead of secret?

    An allusion implies that its making reference to another known work. The only time I could see someone using the word "perhaps" in reference to an illusion is if there is some doubt abut the author's ability to know about the work that is being alluded to. In the context of midrash / talmud, it seems impossible to me that there would be a possible allusion and anybody would think that the Talmud didn't have access to that work.

    It seems here that by remez he must mean an idea or concept that is not widely known.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Are you going to respond to R. Adlerstein's attack on your approach to the anisakis controversy over at cross-currents? We are waiting for someone to defend your position.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It's not an "attack", it's a disagreement. I submitted a comment several days ago, but it hasn't appeared yet.

    ReplyDelete
  8. "Rabban Gamliel sat and expounded: [In the Messianic Era] the Land of Israel is destined to grow fresh bread and garments of fine wool, as it states, “May there be an abundance of grain in the land” ... "(Which we see happening!)"

    Heck, scientists are already growing plastic on trees! ->

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090519134837.htm

    ReplyDelete
  9. I always thought the argument about "preventing students from falling asleep" was ridiculous. I just can't see it realistically being true.

    And supposing some rebbe did have this grand idea, and the sudents actually stayed awake for an extra two seconds until he told them, "Just joking" -- then what? Why in the world would a Midrash record in writing something a rabbi said just so to keep his students awake? And what kind of students are we imagining here? Two year olds?

    I know several "greats" have offered this explanation of certain midrashim, but I just don't think it works if one thinks about it from a rational perspective.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Amateur,
    The use of "allusion" is a very standard meaning of "remez". Sometimes people say "hint" ....same difference within this context.

    Perhaps you are taking the acronym of PaRDeS and switching the "sod" [S] for the "remez" [R}?

    Take care,
    Gary Goldwater

    ReplyDelete
  11. Yehudah,

    >And supposing some rebbe did have this grand idea, and the sudents actually stayed awake for an extra two seconds until he told them, "Just joking" -- then what? Why in the world would a Midrash record in writing something a rabbi said just so to keep his students awake? And what kind of students are we imagining here? Two year olds?

    "The Midrash" doesn't record anything in writing. People did. Maybe people who didn't realize the significance or insignificance of every last thing collected. That may be a good thing, because sometimes editors who are too smart throw things out that are actually valuable.

    Secondly, we are fortunate in having models in our own time which show that different types of people are edified and entertained by different things. Think of that next time you see a woman reading People Magazine or someone soaking up a godol hagiography. All the more so in cultures and times far away from us. I'm not saying that it's necessarily true, but the fact that you don't find aggados entertaining says nothing about how they were received 1400 years ago in Sura.

    Thirdly, there is criticism of aggadah in the Talmud itself, which is really the source of such suggestions which treat Aggadah as something less than the perfectly true words of Chazal. I can't find many such sources on one foot, but there is Yerushalmi Shabbos 16:1 "א"ר יהושע בן לוי הדא אגדתא הכותבה אין לו חלק. החורשה מתחרך השומעה אינו מקבל שכר. א"ר יהושע בן לוי אנא מן יומוי לא איסתכלית בספרא דאגדתא אלא חד זמן."

    You tell me what R. Yehoshua ben Levi thought about Aggadah. Not much, by the sound of it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Concerning sleeping students...

    http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/eylevine/5763chayeisarah.htm

    "The Gemara records that when Rebbi Akiva attempted to awake his students during his lecture he explained that Esther merited to become the Queen of 127 provinces only due to the fact that Sarah lived a full life of 127 years."

    ReplyDelete
  13. what does Riaz mean? "they tried to expound in as many ways as possible"?

    also, i have a good idea for you Rabbi Slifkin, you should create a list of links to interesting websites/pieces. open up a delicious account and every just save interesting bookmark to it. every other post has a link to some or other article, it would be good to have all the links in one place. just an idea.

    ReplyDelete
  14. There's a famous passage - I think its in Beraishis Rabbah - where Rabbi Akiva saw his students dozing off and came up with a derasha to seize their interest and wake them up. That's not someone explaining the midrash, its the language of the midrash itself.

    And you cite the RBB"CH passages of BB (75a) where R. Yochanon scolded someone for saying he would not believe it had he not seen it. Yet notice that in the same passage (73b) Rav Papa bar Shmuel said if he had not been present [to witness something an amora told him] he would not have believed it. Thus at best the Gemara is a wash.

    ReplyDelete
  15. "Science, Torah and Rationalism Controversy"

    Isn't "rationalism" a little anachronistic? :)

    ReplyDelete
  16. "The use of "allusion" is a very standard meaning of "remez". Sometimes people say "hint" ....same difference within this context.

    Perhaps you are taking the acronym of PaRDeS and switching the "sod" [S] for the "remez" [R}? "

    Thank you for the correction. Yes, "hint" is much better than "allusion". I confused the hebrew for "hint" and "secret" but my question still stands.

    I guess its just bad usage of the word "allusion" , when what was meant was "allude to", which can mean something completely different than "allusion"

    Sorry for my seemingly pedantic rant, but when it comes to the arts and literature, some words come with a lot of baggage and meaning.

    Asmachtas are primitive/blunt allusions, and asmachtas aren't remez (or are they?)


    Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I don't think that Remez means that the reader is expected to know what is being refered to. Allusion however does mean exactly that.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "what does Riaz mean? "they tried to expound in as many ways as possible"?"

    I understood the comment to mean that they looked at the verses from all angles, from all ways of reading it. They then recorded the harder to see meanings which not everyone might read on their own. As a means of displaying the 70 faces of Torah.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.