Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Revolutions in Jewish Intellectual History

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the day that I received a phone call from Bnei Brak, telling me that I had until the end of the day to retract my books and publicly apologize, or face scandal and humiliation. (If you were living on a different planet in 2004/5, you can read all about the ban at this link.) I picked the second option. It was very painful, though less so in the long run than the first option would have been. 

One of the most significant and passionate of my opponents was Rav Moshe Shapiro. He presented himself as following in the path of Maharal. But a certain rav, to whom I am close, and who is an aficionado of Maharal, felt that Rav Shapiro was not portraying Maharal's position correctly.

After several years of study and contemplation, I had to disagree. I felt that Rav Shapiro was perfectly following Maharal's approach. But this did not make his opposition to my work justified. Maharal himself was a revolutionary, who went entirely against the approach of all the Rishonim (and of Chazal). It was truly ironic that such a revolutionary figure was being used to condemn the "heresy" of an approach that has a much more authentic lineage!

Rabbi Chaim Eisen began the process of documenting Maharal's revolutionary approach in a seminal article in the journal Hakirah (freely available here). But I feel that Rabbi Eisen's article did not cover some crucial aspects of the way in which Maharal's approach was innovative. I have documented these in a paper entitled "Maharal's Multiple Revolutions in Aggadic Scholarship," which you can download at this link. If you feel that you benefit from it, and/or from this blog in general, please make a donation to the Torah and Nature Foundation, which is the fund for The Biblical Museum of Natural History. You can donate with either a credit card or PayPal account by clicking on the button below. Thank you for your support!


  1. "I picked the second option. It was very painful, though less so in the long run than the first option would have been."

    The Zohar states, man falls in order to rise.

    If not for the contrast that life confronts all of us with, we would never seek to expand.

    Also, if not for the so called ban, I for one, and I know many many others as well, would never have noticed the significance of your work and your tremendous contribution to the Torah world.

  2. I have seen you misquote this book before, but the title is פתיחות והסתגרות, or Petichut ve-histagrut, meaning openness and withdrawal. Hitgarut would mean provokation.

  3. It seems that your bias leads you to your conclusions regarding the Maharal. You say that according to the Maharal it is "unthinkable" that the sages would be wrong, which is not the same as heretical. You also underestimate the rationalism of the Maharal--the Maharal's non literal interpretations are motivated by the fact that the literal interpretation is unfeasible. If non-literal interpretation is heresy, as may have been the case in earlier Ashkenaz, there is no room for the Maharal either. Furthermore, the fact that the Maharal has a better explanation for the aggadot that corresponds to the details just makes his explanations just that, better than his predecessors. If when the gemara says Moshe was 10 amot tall is that Moshe was very great, you haven't done such a good job of explaining the gemara. The Maharal's revolution is significant because once he explained the gemara, you can see that this is the meaning of the symbol. Also, on the example of asmakhtot, the Maharal was not the first to reject the Rambam, as you know the Ritva strongly rejects the view of Rambam (and the Kuzari). The Maharal held views about the importance of studying nature which hardly accord with contemporary haredi views. You shouldn't let one gemara in Pesachim determine your view of everything else.

  4. If according to the Maharal, Moshe would have been as tall as physically possible because “in accordance with the spiritual level and qualities that someone has, his body will be synchronized accordingly,” then it follows that Maharal holds that tallness is a sign of spiritual greatness. Does He hold that Og and Golias were spiritually great?

  5. @G*3:

    Of course not. Somehow describing attributions of unusual size to a historical figure as indicaions of spiritual stature only applies when it matches our prejudices. Thus, Moshe was spiritually great and Par'oh was a spiritual midget. The real question is: was Adom 10 times as great as Moshe, according to the opinion that Adom was 100 Amos tall?

  6. "You also underestimate the rationalism of the Maharal--the Maharal's non literal interpretations are motivated by the fact that the literal interpretation is unfeasible."

    WFB, it's rational to believe that the world is round. But it's not rational to insist that no intelligent person ever believed otherwise.

  7. The really strange part about anyone using the Maharal to treat you as they did is this:

    Maharal's Be'er HaGolah

    "It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you do not (summarily) reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if (your adversary) does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs. And even if such (beliefs) are opposed to your own faith and religion, do not say to your opponent: "Speak not and close your mouth." If that happens there will take place no purification of religion. On the contrary, you should say at such times, "Speak up as much as you want, say whatever you wish and do not say later that had you been able to speak, you would have replied further." For one who causes his opponent to hold his peace and refrain from speaking demonstrates (thereby) the weakness of his own religious faith....This is therefore the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is naught but the curbing and enfeebling of religion (itself).... When a powerful man seeks out an opponent in order to demonstrate his (own) strength, he very much wants his opponent to exercise as much power as he can, so that if he defeats him his own victory will be more pronounced. What strength is manifested when the opponent is not permitted to fight?....Hence, one should not silence those who speak against religion... for to do so is admission of weakness."

    Cited in Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda (Northvale, NJ/London: Jason Aronson,1990) pp. 57-58,translation of this passage from Maharal's Be'er HaGolah, end of last chapter. From Rabbi Nathan Cardozo's Thoughts to Ponder

  8. > omehow describing attributions of unusual size to a historical figure as indicaions of spiritual stature only applies when it matches our prejudices.

    But that’s incoherent. If the Maharal is claiming that spiritual stature is always reflected in physical stature, then a single counter-example disproves his theory. Og and Golias are both described as giants and rishaim. Their physical stature does not match their spiritual stature, therefore Maharal was incorrect. QED

  9. @G*3

    Sorry that the sarcasm didn't come through. I agree with you 100%. Expecting logical conclusions from someone who decided to reinterpret CHaZaL to be reflecting ideas they probably never pondered is expecting a lot, in my opinion.

  10. But this is the Maharal! A figure so respected that I felt uncomfortable writing that he was wrong, and so substituted the softer-sounding “incorrect.”

    How did he become so respected if he says things that are so obviously illogical?

  11. In response to G*3: There is a distinction to be made, though--the text of the Tanach says that Goliath and Og were giants (to indicate that they were really tough opponents), but doesn't mention Pharoah's or Moshe's height.

    If Chazal say that Pharoah's height was an ammah (and that his penis was also an ammah long), it's safe to assume Chazal didn't mean it literally, but were talking about Pharoah being totally engrossed in his lusts.

  12. I am not a fan of attaching mystical interpretations to midrashim such as those given by the Maharal. However, one should not simply dismiss the effort as irrational. It is no different than other type derashot. Some appeal and some don't. In particular, I would not dismiss the Maharal's view of the mystical significance of height. Nor need there be a contradiction between the significance of a '10 ama' height of Moshe and the 6 ama height of Goliath and, possibly, Og. The height of the righteous is considered to be a reflection of their spirituality, while the height of transgressors is reflection of their physicality. In both cases, the proported height is really considered to be a measure of what drives their behavior, whether spirituality of physicality.

    The case of the carrying of Tabernacle (Mishkan) furniture by Leviim illustrates another aspect of Aggadah and its relationship to Halacha. There was a well established halacha about the impermissibility of carrying an object 10 tefachim or more above ground from one domain to another. That halacha is independent of some biblical rationale given for it, or some assumption about the height of the Levitical carriers. Realistically speaking, the Leviim of Moshe's time were of ordinary height, i.e. 3 amot (18 tefachim) from shoulder to ground. Nor was the copper altar any more in height than the torah's measure of 3 amot (imagine carrying a rigid copper clad wooden object with dimensions of 5x5x10 amot - even hollow). On the other hand, the gold covered table was 1.5 amot or 9 tefachim tall. The carrying rings were attached to the legs under the surrounding frame. If the top was at least 1 tefach thick and the frame (called misgeret tofach) was also 1 tefach, then the carrying poles would be some 7 tefachim above ground. The shoulder of the Levites were 18 tefachim above ground. That leaves a gap of 11 tefachim between the bottom of the carried table and the ground. A similar analysis could be done for a realistic copper altar which came in 2 parts, an upper - presumably larger part (karkov), a copper grate below to which the rings were attached, and the bottom part. The rings were at the midheight of the 18 tefach altar. If the carrying poles were 1 tefach in diameter then the bottom of the carried altar would be 10 tefachim above ground.

    Have an easy fast and Gemar Tov,

  13. > If Chazal say that Pharoah's height was an ammah (and that his penis was also an ammah long), it's safe to assume Chazal didn't mean it literally, but were talking about Pharoah being totally engrossed in his lusts.

    I have no problem with understanding Chazal metaphorically. The problem is that the Maharal takes it to be literal, but in the metaphysical (platonic?) world, and would say that Pharoah was small in the physical world in reflection of the metaphysical reality.

    Incidentally, could it be that someone saw an Egyptian fertility god (which tend to be small and ridiculously well-endowed) and mistook it for a representation of Pharaoh?

  14. Excellent Rab Slifkin! I am very glad that you wrote about this

  15. Wouldn't Maharal's approach to height also indicate that someone who is very short could therefore not be a truly righteous tzaddik?

  16. I believe that the Maharal was referring only to the talmudic description of the heights of individuals, not to the physical reality. Obviously, some short people are righteous and some tall ones are not. A close analogy to this would be a description of Rav Moshe Feinstein. Physically, he was quite short, but it is generally agreed that he merited being labelled a 'gadol'.

  17. Max from Beverly Hills:

    I hope everything you do is LESHEM SHAMAYIM.
    You're gonna have to deal with a lot of Gedolim when you get to HEAVEN my man...
    May Hashem have mercy on all of us

  18. Eliot from Beverly Hills:

    I really hope everything you do is LeShem Shamayim. U have a lot of Gedolim you're gonna have to deal with when you go to Heaven my man...
    May Hashem have mercy on all of us.

  19. I can't find the Maharal in Be'er Hagolah 5 about Moses' height. What page is it on in Kenig (or Hartman)? Thank you

  20. You'll forgive my complaining (as I'm sure you have endured worse criticism), but:

    I regret that you chose to suggest (even -- I hope! -- in jest) that readers who are not already aware of your squabble with some of our intransigently fundamentalist coreligionists must be "living on a different planet in 2004/5".

    To suggest this is to vastly overestimate the significance and notoriety of both your own work (admirable though it may be) and especially that of your detractors.


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