Thursday, October 27, 2011

Is It Acceptable To Believe That...

Many of the questions that I receive begin with "Is it acceptable to believe that..." For example:

Is it acceptable to believe that evolution happened?
Is it acceptable to believe that there was no global flood?
Is it acceptable to believe that the Sages were mistaken on various matters?
Is it acceptable to believe that parts of the Chumash are non-Mosaic in origin?
Is it acceptable to believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe/ Rabbi Elazar Abuchatzera/ Nir Ben Artzi was/is the Messiah/ a miracle worker/ a charlatan?

My answer to all these questions is identical.

Acceptable according to whom?

According to some people it is acceptable, according to others it is not!

If they are asking whether it is acceptable to God - well, I don't have a direct line. Presumably, if the belief is true, then it is acceptable to Him (but still not to all sectors of Orthodox Jewish society). If it is not true, then it may or may not be acceptable to Him, but people asking me these questions are usually those who already believe these things to be true.

All I can do is to give my own knowledge as to the extent to which these opinions are supported by earlier authorities or conflict with them. But that will not determine whether they are acceptable in any given Jewish community today.

I once published an article in Hakirah which addresses this point, entitled "They Could Say It, We Cannot: Defining the Charge of Heresy." It can be freely downloaded at this link: http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%209%20Slifkin.pdf

42 comments:

  1. I recall the words of my high school rebbe who cited Rav Soloveitchik z"tz"l as having said that "stupidity is assur".

    I think that one of the criteria for the acceptablity of a belief is its reasonableness and wisdom.

    What is heretical is a separate matter.

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  2. The tendency towards entropy in the physical universe is complemented by the tendency towards simplicity within any complex system of thought. A small minority of people can appreciate a diversity of opinion and the sheer volume of knowledge needed to make complicated decisions. The majority don't care about such things and want a simple "It's always okay" or "It's never okay" kind of answer so they can perform without having to think too hard.
    The current approach "Either you have a set of beliefs like us or you're a kofer" is reflective of this. Why struggle with trying to explain evolution from a Torah perspective when you can simply declare it to be assur? Why deal with the age of the universe when you can simply declare that believe the universe is over 5772 years old is apikorsus?
    This has been my opinion for a while: here is finally a way for Modern Orthodoxy to make an impact on the Torah world - by creating a curriculum in their educational institutions that demands an appreciation of the depth of halacha and the diversity of Jewish opinions, in other words an intelligent presentation of Torah instead of a dogmatic one.

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  3. The Rambam formulated his 13 Principles in order to precisely quantify which beliefs a Jew must absolutely adhere to in order to have a share in the World to Come. Based on the Rambam, the answer to #4; “Is it acceptable to believe that parts of the Chumash are non-Mosaic in origin?” is that this is UNACCEPTABLE to any G-d fearing Jew.

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  4. I think that "They Could Say It, We Cannot" is one of the most pernicious, fallacious ideas around today. In fact, those who propound this belief have no qualms whatsoever about saying whatever it is that they think is correct and normative. It is just a tactic to force their own position.

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  5. "Why deal with the age of the universe when you can simply declare that believe the universe is over 5772 years old is apikorsus?"

    Someone should ask a Godol if it's apikorsus to believe the universe is 5774 years old.

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  6. Has anyone ever not believed something because it wasn't acceptable? Since when is belief something we can switch on and off? We analyse the information and come to a decision.
    I read this article recently and thought it was quite good: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/aug/02/choice-free-will-philosophy-god
    (It's by an atheist but it isn't about atheism. He basically argues that you can't command someone to believe something).

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  7. Your essay in Hakirah left me wondering whether Rav Herzog's acceptance of Chazal's fallibility means that he disagrees with his eminent student's view that, "they could say it, we cannot."

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  8. I think natural selection will answer these questions for you. But in its own due time. If there are Jewish communities that still have these views in two hundred years time, I think that we can say, in retrospect, that they are/were acceptable. If the communities in which these views cease to exist (either through assimilation or lack of fertility) then we can say that they were unacceptable.

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  9. The Rambam formulated his 13 Principles in order to precisely quantify which beliefs a Jew must absolutely adhere to in order to have a share in the World to Come. Based on the Rambam, the answer to #4; “Is it acceptable to believe that parts of the Chumash are non-Mosaic in origin?” is that this is UNACCEPTABLE to any G-d fearing Jew.

    Looks like you haven't read "The Limits Of Orthodox Theology." Not everyone agreed with Rambam's principles, especially this one!

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  10. > Many of the questions that I receive begin with "Is it acceptable to believe that..."
    > My answer to all these questions is identical.

    > Acceptable according to whom?

    The question, and your answer, imply that belief is a matter of will; that if the answer was, “No, that’s not an acceptable belief,” the person could voluntarily stop believing it. But belief doesn’t work that way. Either one thinks something is true, or he thinks it is false (or believes that there is a certain probability of it being true or false). This is not a matter of will.

    Go ahead, try to stop believing that the sky is blue.

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  11. "Meir said:
    Looks like you haven't read "The Limits Of Orthodox Theology." Not everyone agreed with Rambam's principles, especially this one!"

    Please specify a few Rishonim who state parts of the Torah are non-Mosaic in origin.

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  12. "Please specify a few Rishonim who state parts of the Torah are non-Mosaic in origin."

    Radak and Ibn Ezra, to name two.

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  13. G3: I disagree. In the same way that William James said that truth is whatever works out to be true for you, it is truth, so it is with beliefs.

    If it's truth, then there are no "buts" about it. So if stealing is wrong, it is always wrong, even if you do it because you can't buy food to survive. James said that therefore, for the "thief", stealing is no longer wrong, and it is false that it is wrong, for him. There are no eternal truths.

    I believe the world is as old as the Gedolim say it is. That's what I believe now. If they say tomorrow that it is 1 million years old, then that is what I will believe tomorrow. And it affects nothing if I change that belief, not for you, for me, or anyone else. I think it's true today. Tomorrow it may be false. In the end, so what?

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  14. "Not everyone agreed with Rambam's principles, especially this one!"

    And Rambam himself seems to have backtracked. In Hilchot Tshuvah, it is conspicuously missing from the list of beliefs that are halachicly beyond the pale.

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  15. Regarding the first three "is is acceptables", it is clear that it is NOT acceptable to believe that evolution has not happened, that a flood covered the entire planet, or that every scientific fact stated by Chazal is accurate -- because we have empirical proof to the contrary. Judaism is not a religion that lives only in a spiritual plane; we have to accept the results of empirical observation on a daily basis: Has the sun set? Is the animal kosher? There is no alternative to reinterpreting the words of our sages to be in line with empirical observation, other than intellectual dishonesty.

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  16. Given that the talmud states that the flood did not cover Eretz Yisrael, the question arises whether it is acceptable to believe that the flood DID cover the entire world.

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  17. Charlie Hall: "Given that the talmud states that the flood did not cover Eretz Yisrael, the question arises whether it is acceptable to believe that the flood DID cover the entire world."

    Not entirely related to your question, but the following was written by R. Sa'adiah Gaon:

    וממה ששייך עוד לפרשת המבול... הוא מה שמצאנו שאחד מאומתנו דימה שארץ ישראל לא נשטפה במבול. ... ומן הדין לבאר טעותו בדבר זה ונאמר שמן הארצות שהיו מיושבות בימים ההם לא נשארה אף אחת שלא הוצפה במבול. רק המקומות הבלתי מיושבים לא היה צורך להציף אותן במים כי המטרה היתה למחות את כל בעלי החיים ... והמקומות הללו‚ רצוני לומר אלו שמעבר האקלים הראשון ואלה שמעבר לאקלים השביעי‚ הרי אין בהם בעלי חיים וצמחים. בנגב מחמת השרב‚ ובצפון מפני הכפור. ומאחר שאין החי והצמח קיימים בהם מצד הטבע‚ לה היה צורך להוריד

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  18. I think the critical point of the questioner is the word "believe". If a torah educator makes a claim about the natural world that the student knows to be untrue, that student would be a fool to make believe that the false claim is true. Sometimes the insistence on substituting emes with sheker has to do with the willingness of an individual to surrender his/her sechel to someone who takes pleasure in promoting foolish thining.

    However, for the sake of understanding a text or a commentary, one does need to imagine him/herself in the shoes of the author in order to make the most of the text or commentary.. What did people of that time believe? Where did this thinker stand in reference to his/her time and culture? Without adopting this stance, it would be impossible to translate the valuable thinking of those from a different time to our world. So, the "belief" is only a temporary one with a practical purpose....making sense of torah thought from a certain time/culture. The belief need not be overgeneralized.

    Gary Goldwater

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  19. This is a good article that points to the strong reason Judaism must be seen as having a broad spectrum of acceptable beliefs from right to left.

    There is no room for "my way or the highway" Judaism. History bears out that a multi faceted Judaism was more often the norm then extreme right groups that think only their Judaism is authentic.

    A word about heresy, it is for power and control, rarely a quest for truth.

    Shalom,

    Rabbi Simon

    P.S. I'm a huge Rambam fan, however I think he was way off base trying to set a standard of belief. Also upon close examination the Rambam's 13 principles were in conflict with his concepts in Mora. People unfamiliar with Mora do not realize what the true purpose and meaning of the 13 P. were.

    For example, It seemed the Rambam wrote the 13P mainly for common Jew, so they would have some merit to enter the world to come, which he believed was a world of the intellect not a physical world.

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  20. "Not everyone agreed with Rambam's principles, especially this one!"

    And Rambam himself seems to have backtracked. In Hilchot Tshuvah, it is conspicuously missing from the list of beliefs that are halachicly beyond the pale.


    I’m not aware of the Hilchot Tshuvah you are referring to. In Chapter 3, Rambam writes:

    שלושה הן הכופרים בתורה: האומר שאין התורה מעם ה', אפילו פסוק אחד, אפילו תיבה אחת--אם אמר משה אמרו מפי עצמו, הרי זה כופר בתורה

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  21. Mike, it’s true that you’re beliefs don’t affect what is empirically true. And is, as it seems, your epistemology is that whatever the Gedolim say is true, then good for you. But then changing your belief about the age of the world is caused directly by the change in the Gedolim’s declaration, in line with your epistemology. Not by an act of will.

    As I said, try, through an act of will, to truly believe that the sky is not blue.

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  22. " Charlie Hall said...
    'Please specify a few Rishonim who state parts of the Torah are non-Mosaic in origin.'

    Radak and Ibn Ezra, to name two."

    Why is this always like pulling teeth?! I am obviously not asking for names but sources, real-live, breathing, pulsating sources I can look up for myself! "Rishonim" never has any validity, and "Redak and Ibn Ezra" has no more validity!

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  23. Charlie-re the Mabbul and Eretz Yisrael:it's a machlokes! See Zevachim 113a

    And where does the Radak discuss post-Moshe psukim?

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  24. And please, obviously the Rambam is very debatable; I hope the other two are more explicit!

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  25. "Please specify a few Rishonim who state parts of the Torah are non-Mosaic in origin."

    Radak and Ibn Ezra, to name two. - Charlie Hall


    Never heard this about Radak, where is that? But you can add Rashbam, R. Yehudah HaChassid, and numerous others. For the sources, see Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Seven. According to R. Moshe Ibn Tibbon and R. Yosef Bonfils in Tzafnas Paneach, this does not raise a problem with the Gemara's condemnation of those who say that anyone other than Moshe wrote the Torah, since the Gemara was only referring to the commandments. Others suggest that the Gemara is condemning the notion that any part was written without Divine inspiration (but not that parts were written by prophets other than Moshe Rabbeinu).

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  26. And here's a great example of what I was talking about in this post. I know of many people who say that this view of Ibn Ezra, R. Yehudah HaChassid is absolutely unacceptable today - and in their communities, they are probably correct. But on the other hand, Rav Moshe Tzuriel writes:

    ודאי אני מודה שהסומך על ראב”ע (או אברבנאל וכיו”ב) ביחס לפסוקים הנוספים, איננו
    נחשב לכופר, והוא נחשב ישראל . . . וכן כל דבר שיש מחלוקת ראשונים

    Also R. Solomon David Sassoon:

    הדגש הוא על מה שאומר כי משה אמר זה מפי עצמו, אבל אם יאמר פסוקים אלה נביא אחר כתב אותם מפי הגבורה ומודה שקטע זה הוא מן השמים ומפי הגבורה, אדם שאומר כך אינו נקרא אפיקורוס, מה שהגדיר אותו כאפיקורוס אינו זה שאמר שלא משה כתב את הקטע אלא בזה שהוא אומר שדבר שזה מדעתו ומפי עצמו אמרו ושאין זה מן השמים

    It also seems that Rav Shlomo Fischer is of the same view.

    (sources from http://seforim.blogspot.com/2007/08/marc-b-shapiro-forgery-and-halakhic.html.)

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  27. Never heard this about Radak, where is that? But you can add Rashbam, R. Yehudah HaChassid, and numerous others.

    The R. Yehudah HaChassid you mention is dubious. It’s a sefer that is attributed to him, which in fact R. Moshe Feinstein believed was a forgery. I’d like to know the source of the Rashbam, as I do not have access to Dr. Shapiro’s book.

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  28. ""Not everyone agreed with Rambam's principles, especially this one!""

    What I don't understand is why the Rambam is allowed to contradict the Gemora and Tanach.

    The Gemora tells us that Yehoshua wrote the passages of the Torah that deal with the "Ir Miklat", as well as the last 8 verses.
    The Book of Yehoshua tells us that Gd commanded Yehoshua to add some words to the Torah. The Torah itself tells us that sections of it were accepted by the Jewish people as the Torah.

    Rambam's principle here is as true and as accurate as the statement that the sky is blue!

    Like the image (which is really a schematic) of the Menorah drawn by the Rambam, it seems to me that this principle is misunderstood by the people who came after him, because a minor amount of research into the matter proves its falseness.

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  29. Last comment to echo some other people...
    I am Jewish and not a Christian. Therefore I would never ask somebody, "Is it acceptable to believe that..."
    Rather, I would ask,
    "Is it true that..."

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  30. Charlie Hall asks, "Given that the talmud states that the flood did not cover Eretz Yisrael, the question arises whether it is acceptable to believe that the flood DID cover the entire world."

    Huh?? Don't you think the Talmud means to say that it covered the entire world except Eretz Yisrael? I don't see how your question arises.

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  31. The R. Yehudah HaChassid you mention is dubious. It’s a sefer that is attributed to him, which in fact R. Moshe Feinstein believed was a forgery.

    The fact that Rav Moshe Feinstein was religiously very uncomfortable with it does not mean that its authorship is dubious! It's like Rav Moshe Shapiro claiming that the maamar of R. Avraham ben HaRambam must be a forgery, or Rav Yaakov Emden claiming that the Moreh Nevuchim must be a forgery.

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  32. There's a joke in mathematics: The Axiom of Choice is obviously true, the well-ordering principle obviously false, and who can tell about Zorn's lemma?"

    The joke is all three are equivalent; the different formulations are more or less intuitively appealing.

    Belief isn't easy to turn on and off like a garden hose. The degree of belief and certainty in things can change from minute to minute based on emotion, intuition, familiarity and even reason.

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  33. The Radak in question is Bereshit 14:14 Vayirdof ad dan and also referenced as an example in his commentary I Sam 4:1

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=40230&st=&pgnum=68

    Prof. Shapiro dealt with this in several posts on the seforim blog. The alternate explanation (there may be multiple) is that Moshe called it Dan via prophecy despite it not being called Dan in those days. The Radak himself questions whether Dan of Bereshit must be the same Dan conquered by shevet Dan hundreds of years later.

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  34. Is it acceptable to believe that the entire premise of having to ask someone else what is acceptable for you to believe is ridiculous?

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  35. R. Slifkin, I think it was Munkatch Rav (Minchas Elazar) who claimed the Mora was forged.

    Wondering, here are sources (from Dr. Shapiro's book):

    Rashi Gen. 18:22 (Tikkun sofrim)
    Radak Hab. 1:12, Ezek. 8:18, Sam I 3:13 (tikkun sofrim)
    Midrash Shmos Rabah 30:15, see commentary of Matnos Khunah
    Ibn Ezra, Deut. 34:1 (see also chasam sofer Toras Moshe, Deut. 34:1), Deut. 1:2 (which was understood by a host of Rishonim to allude to a listing non-Mosaic authership)
    Ramban Deut. 31:19
    Hadar Zekanim L'Balei Hatosafos Deut. 32:44
    R. Moshe Ibn Tibun (text published in D. Schwartz, Astrology and Magic in Medieval Jewish Thought, Ramat Gan, 1999, 330 ff. Ibn Tibun also claimedthat one most distinguish between post-Mosaic addition of commandments, and narrative additions.
    Tzofnos Pane'ach Gen 12:6, 22:14, 36:31, Deut. 1:2 (He also makes the same distinction as Ibn Tibun, but he adds that post-Mosaic addition of entire portions of narrative is also objectionable)
    R. Yehudah Hachasid (uncensored version, 64, 138, 198)
    R. Avigdor Katz (R. Meir of Rothenbutg's teacher) (txt published in H. J. Zimmles, The Manuscript Hamburg Cod. Hebr. 45 and its Attribuition to R. Avigdor Katz, Vienna, 1933, 248-61)
    Moshav Zekanim, Rashbam (text published in Isaac Lange, 'Moshav Zekenim', Hama'ayan 12, 75-95)
    Rosh, Commentary on BT Nedarim 37b (also see Merome Sadeh by Netziv on BT ibid)
    And many more...

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  36. Plini, see my earlier quote of R. Sa'adiah Gain where he says that tha Mabul didn't reach the entire world.

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  37. I guess this was all a misunderstanding, if all you meant was that some hold Yehoshua wrote some verses instead of Moshe (e.g. cited Ibn Ezra) that is entirely unexciting. The Gemara itself mentions such an opinion! Yeedle, can you please explain why this is being quoted as the opinion of Ibn Ezra and not R' Yehuda (or R' Nechemiah)? This is not a surprise to anyone with even a little Talmudic background. The Rambam in yesod shmini does not stress at all that the giver was moshe but that it's all one Torah identified as the one Moshe gave. There is no stress on the idea that Moshe was the giver per se, rather mentioned as a fact. If not, how can you explain that famous gemara in BB about Yehoshua? This is obviously dissimilar from R. Hillel where the gemara in Sanhedrin clearly admonishes him. But really bottom line I want to know why we're quoting an Ibn Ezra and not an explicit gemara (the Ibn ezra's extension is not a chidush except for the fact that he is offering an alternative to the version given in the gemara; something he is wont to do)?

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  38. The most relevant citation from Zevachim 113a is not the machloket between R' Yochanan and Resh Lakish as to whether it rained on eretz yisrael during the mabul, but the view in Tosafot that there were areas in which it neither rained during the mabul nor were the mountains there covered by the floodwaters. If the mabul was not limited to a region, then there would be no obstacle to the flood waters covering all low lying lands - including Israel.

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  39. "In Chapter 3, Rambam writes:"

    That was precisely my point. He is NOT saying that the Torah we have is identical to that given to Moshe, he is saying that the required belief is that the Torah is from God. HUGE difference.

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  40. "why this is being quoted as the opinion of Ibn Ezra and not R' Yehuda (or R' Nechemiah)?"

    He asked for Rishonim. But you are right, even Chazal didn't agree that the Torah we have today had never changed.

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  41. "But really bottom line I want to know why we're quoting an Ibn Ezra and not an explicit gemara (the Ibn ezra's extension is not a chidush except for the fact that he is offering an alternative to the version given in the gemara; something he is wont to do)?"

    I am not sure whether you are just playing games with us or that you really have never heard of Hakenaani az baretz. Also, you don't think it is a chidush for the Ibn Ezra to say the entire last perek is from yehoshua when the gemara didn't?

    I think you should look up the sources yourself rather than asking everyone to provide them for you. Do a little searching on the internet about Ibn Ezra. As someone already mentioned, lots and lots of meforshim understand the Ibn Ezra to be saying that a number of pesukim were written later than moshe.

    Regarding Pirush R. Yehudah hachasid Dr. Leiman has an article on this on the Torah Motion site.

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  42. 1- Charlie Hall, you seem to have retracted your original understanding that Rambam [in Hil. Teshuvah] *conspiculously* retracted his original definition [in Perush Hamishnah] of heresy in the text of the Torah. I would add that the simple reading of Rambam Hil. Teshuvah is that Moshe and no other human partook in the writing of the Torah. Picture Shmuel or Ezra convening a gathering of scribes and telling them that he has prophetic emendations of the Torah’s text – an extra phrase here, a word less there – and then convenes another meeting of the whole nation and apprises them of the latest updates. Meanwhile some non-believing scribe thinks to himself that
    אין תורה מעם ה' - תיבה אחת אמר שמואל/עזרא מפי עצמו
    -- Rambam, according to your understanding would consider this scribe a heretic. But Rambam says no such thing. Rambam indicates that [it is a given that] Moshe sealed the Torah and all its words. The only way to deny the divine authorship is to say that
    אין תורה מעם ה' - תיבה אחת אמר *משה* מפי עצמו
    It’s either ה' or Moshe. Shmuel, Ezra, and the rest of the prophets aren’t even on the radar.

    You might argue that Rambam only uses Moshe as an example, but that wouldn’t be the straightforward reading of Rambam. Also since you say that Rambam changed his position, you -- not those who think Rambam didn’t change his position -- have the burden of proof.

    2- RambaN [Noach 8:12] says that even if the flood didn’t *rain down* on Israel, the flood waters immediately, naturally, flooded the land *from the sides*. He cites Pirkey R. Eliezer who says so clearly.

    3- I'm not intimately familiar with RMF's statement that RY Hachasid' commentary is a forgery. But it's different from the Moreh and Rav Avraham Ben Harambam where they were historically accepted as legitimate as opposed to the RY Hachasid which was new on the block.

    4- For the record, the Parshah of Ir Miklat in the Torah was written by Moshe; the Gemarah Makos says that the Parshah of Ir Miklat in SEFER YEHOSHUAH was written by Yehoshuah. [See there why this is worth mentioning]

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