In the previous post, I noted that a primary difference between traditional and academic modes of Jewish study is that the latter evaluates sources in light of their context - geographical, cultural, intellectual, etc. (I must reiterate that, as with everything, this is not a black-and-white difference, but it is certainly true in broad terms. And I must also reiterate that there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.) Here are several examples of how I myself have used this methodology in previous posts:
Kezayis - The geographical context accounts for why the Rishonim of Sefarad never bothered discussing the size of the kezayis, whereas the Rishonim of Ashkenaz strived to figure it out, and came up with a very large quantity.
Jumping elephants - Why did Rabbeinu Meshulam believe that elephants will jump to obtain food? Because he'd never seen one.
Metzitzah b'peh - If Chasam Sofer was ready to acknowledge that metzitza b'peh was instituted as a medical precaution and should thus be abandoned if dangerous, why did his disciple Maharam Schick describe it as halachah l'Moshe MiSinai? Answer: Because he was following Chasam Sofer's policy of exaggerating the halachic status of things when under threat from reformers, and in his time, metzitzah b'peh was being challenged by reformers.
The Rav and the Immutability of Halachah
- Why did Rav Soloveitchik seem to state that it is heretical to base Chazal's rulings on historical circumstances, when so many great authorities did precisely that? Perhaps because of his own historical circumstances!
In a forthcoming post, I will discuss another example that is extremely relevant to this forum.