Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Recipe for Intellectual Dishonesty

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The label "intellectual dishonesty" is often bandied about, but is not so easy to define, or to differentiate from general dishonesty. It seems that the term should be used for cases when a person presents an intellectual argument that falls far short of the standards that the person himself should know to use. He may sincerely believe the argument that he is offering, and thus he is being honest; but he is intellectually dishonest in not applying the evaluation that he should know to apply.

For example, someone who insists that "expert opinion" maintains that the world is less than six thousand years old, and that there was no age of dinosaurs, is not necessarily intellectually dishonest. He may genuinely believe that to be the case, if his definition of "expert opinion" is consistent.

There are numerous examples of intellectual dishonesty in Rabbi Moshe Meiselman's book Torah, Chazal and Science. But one stands out in that it is an actual recipe for intellectual dishonesty.

It's very unfashionable in Orthodox Judaism to talk about anyone being infallible - after all, that reeks of idolatry. Staunch advocates of Daas Torah, for example, will insist that they do not believe that the Gedolim are infallible. However, they undermine this claim when they refuse to name any instance of the Gedolim ever being mistaken.

Rabbi Meiselman likewise insists that Chazal were not omniscient or infallible (p. 33). However, he undermines this claim in two ways. First is that he distinguishes between cases where Chazal make definitive statements and when they make tentative statements. In cases where they make firm statements, Rabbi Meiselman claims that is inconceivable that they would have done so unless they were certain that they were correct and that there was no possibility of their being in error. As he states: "A major thesis of this book is that if Chazal make a definitive statement, whether regarding halachah or realia, it means that they know it to be unassailable" (p. 107). His given reason for this is that "Whenever Chazal make unqualified statements it indicates that regarding those particular issues the information encoded in the Torah or the methodology for extracting it had not yet been lost. Therefore, their knowledge represents absolute truth, which overrides any manmade theory" (p. 32-33).

Now, there are a number of problems with this claim. Rabbi Meiselman claims that if Chazal make a definitive statement, it means that they know it to be unassailable. But how does he know this? If he is insisting that Chazal's unqualified statements are based on information extracted from Torah, then we can ask again, what on earth is the basis for this claim? Rav Hirsch and many others certainly didn't think so! Why couldn't Chazal have ever said something that was not from the Torah, and yet which they believed to be true? Is it really impossible for them to have gained knowledge from their intellect or from other sources, and to have considered it reliable?

And there are further problems here. Let's say that Chazal really did base a given statement on knowledge that they had extracted from the Torah. Why does this necessarily mean that it is correct? That could only be the case if one considers Chazal to be absolutely infallible in such matters. Such a topic is beyond the purview of this post, but suffice it to note that it is far from undisputed.

Furthermore, as noted, it is significant that we see that Rabbi Meiselman in fact considers Chazal infallible. For the most a person can do is to believe that something he says to be unassailable. You can never know that something you say is unassailable - unless you are infallible.

However, I want to concentrate on the theme of this post, which is intellectual dishonesty. We have here a twofold recipe for intellectual dishonesty. First is that engendered by Rabbi Meiselman considering definitive statements to be infallible, and only non-definitive statements to be potentially errant. The result of this is that when faced with a statement about the natural world in the Gemara that is obviously incorrect, he, and those who follow his approach, are forced to classify it as a non-definitive statement - no matter how unreasonable it is to do so. In other words, he has to argue that a certain claim (i.e. that a given statement of Chazal was only tentative) is definitely true, even if under other circumstance the evidence would not warrant such a claim. That is a recipe for intellectual dishonesty.

The second recipe for intellectual dishonesty comes when we have taken Rabbi Meiselman's step and relegated a statement to being tentative instead of definitive. Here, Rabbi Meiselman agrees that it can potentially be in error; however, he maintains that it is forbidden for us lowly denizens of the 21st century to actually point out such things:
"...Even when a tentative statement of Chazal is in error... the prerogative of declaring any of their teachings mistaken is granted to them, not to us. For anyone other than Chazal themselves, questioning their conclusions is called being melagleg al divrei Chachamim - "mocking of the words of the Sages" - a crime with very serious consequences." (p. 108)
(By the way, I'm not sure how he reconciles this with his claim that Chazal's tentative statement about the existence of mud-mice is in error. Is he not being melagleg al divrei Chachamim by his own definition?)

Here we have another recipe for intellectual dishonesty. Rabbi Meiselman admits that some of Chazal's tentative statements may be in error, but he says that it is forbidden for us to explain the Gemara in that way. A similar claim was issued on the blog of Rabbi Meiselman's protege, and assistant in writing his book, Rabbi Dovid Kornreich (who seems to diverge from his rebbe by claiming that Chazal are theoretically fallible even with regard to definitive statements):
"The problem for the traditional camp is that while Chazal were not infallible and made mistakes, we do not have the authority to declare Chazal mistaken based on our own knowledge or judgment. Only other members of Chazal have the authority to point out their mistakes. So there would be a problem if Chazal truly believed in the existence of a spontaneously generated creature that we know today does not exist. This problem is neatly avoided by simply examining the relevant gemara and realizing that there is nothing which forces the conclusion that Chazal actually believed its existence."
Whereas Kornreich claims that his problem has been "neatly avoided," in fact what he has done is to apply the intellectual dishonesty mandated by Rabbi Meiselman. Since it would be unacceptable to interpret Chazal as having made a mistake, he is forced to reinterpret Chazal such that they are not actually asserting the existence of such a creature, no matter how unreasonable it is to explain the Gemara in such a way. Reader Akiva Cohen neatly encapsulated the problem with Kornreich's claim, which equally applies to Rabbi Meiselman:
"In other words: Chazal are not infallible, but we need to treat them like they are.  So even though that may lead to non-emes interpretations of the Gemara (since we may be interpreting the Gemara wrongly in order to avoid claiming “Chazal erred” in a situation in which Chazal actually erred), that’s better than saying “Chazal erred.”
This, by the way, strikes me as the worst of both worlds: take all the supposed “faith-destroying” impact of acknowledging that Chazal were fallible when relying on their own intellect, and add to it the new (and more legitimately) faith-destroying acknowledgement that your interpretations of Gemara are not driven by emes, but by an express denial of a possibility that you acknowledge is a possibility."
So, to sum up, Rabbi Meiselman has given two recipes for intellectual dishonesty. One is that all scientifically-problematic statements of Chazal must be explained as being tentative, even if there is no reasonable basis for doing so. Second is that even tentative statements may not ever be explained as actually being errant, even though this might indeed be the case.

Anyone following Rabbi Meiselman's approach is going to be taking a course in intellectual dishonesty. For some, it will be help them feel happy and superior; for others, the cognitive dissonance will cause great inner turmoil.

39 comments:

  1. People say that Rabbi Meiselman is a genius. Indeed. He needs to be one, in order to contrive all the intellectual gymnastics that he forces himself into.

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  2. I've heard it explained a different way. Consider a situation in which you are listening to one of the world's top classic pianists. You yourself have no knowledge of the finer points of piano music, you're just a casual listener. The musician on stage could be having an off day and not playing at his best but only someone intricately familiar with piane music niceties would catch the errors. You in the audience would just think it's a nice performance.
    Or look at the Olympics where some young pixie will give an incredible performance leaving onlookers in awe except for the French judge (it's always him) who gives her a 4.3 because he saw her knee wobble in a way no one else could appreciate.
    So perhaps teh Meiselman point is similar. Yes, Chazal could make errors but only someone on their level would notice it.

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  3. truth with all its consequencesDecember 15, 2013 at 9:08 AM

    Garnel Ironheart said...
    I've heard it explained a different way. Consider a situation in which you are listening to one of the world's top classic pianists. You yourself have no knowledge of the finer points of piano music, you're just a casual listener. The musician on stage could be having an off day and not playing at his best but only someone intricately familiar with piane music niceties would catch the errors. You in the audience would just think it's a nice performance.
    Or look at the Olympics where some young pixie will give an incredible performance leaving onlookers in awe except for the French judge (it's always him) who gives her a 4.3 because he saw her knee wobble in a way no one else could appreciate.
    So perhaps teh Meiselman point is similar. Yes, Chazal could make errors but only someone on their level would notice it.

    December 15, 2013 at 7:48 AM

    I dont get it. if you admit that chazal were not neccesarily as advanced as us, they just knew it from the torah, then youre right if we're to say that what the way they derived it from the torah is wrong and they should derive something else, then for that we would have to be on their level, but to deduce it from science which is very clear and proven (and one can very appropiately apply a term used by rishonim and achronim all over-ei efshar lihachisch mah she'einenu ro'im) what would that have to do with being on their level of torah knowledge??

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  4. Staunch advocates of Daas Torah, for example, will insist that they do not believe that the Gedolim are infallible. However, they undermine this claim when they refuse to name any instance of the Gedolim ever being mistaken.

    It's one thing to say they're not infallible, another to imply that your judgement is superior (without knowledge of facts they don't know).

    The Ketzos for example, writes in his Hakdama that Chazal were fallible (though says that even the mistake are considered Torah), still asks questions and makes complicated deduction on the assumption the he did discover their infallibility.

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  5. I did not mean to defend Rabbi Meiselman's position in my previous.

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  6. "Staunch advocates of Daas Torah, for example, will insist that they do not believe that the Gedolim are infallible. However, they undermine this claim when they refuse to name any instance of the Gedolim ever being mistaken. "
    Besides the point gh500 mentioned, the example is also brought of Mordechai not submitting to Haman--which seemed to bring dire consequences at first, but in the long run was seen to have been the correct course of action.

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  7. someone who read the bookDecember 15, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    "his claim that Chazal's tentative statement about the existence of mud-mice is in error."

    You keep making this mistake.
    Rabbi Meiselman's approach is that Chazal simply addressed it in halachic terms as if it existed-- without making any positive statement of belief(even a tentative one) about its actual existence.

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  8. R' Natan,it is quite ironic that in a post about intellectual dishonesty, you have entirely distorted Rabbi Meiselman's words by selective quotation, melding two paragraphs to read as one. (I do not assume the distortion is intentional, but it is at least irresponsible.) Rabbi Meiselman did not state, as you claim, that we may NEVER conclude that Chazal's non-definitive statements were wrong. He rather states that we may not question their CONCLUSIONS, which are definitive. It is clear from the context, which you have conveniently omitted, that Chazal's statements ABOUT the world are based on Torah, and if mistaken or uncertain, reflect a mistake or uncertainty in their understanding of the Torah. Since our own understanding of Torah is overwhelmingly dwarfed by theirs, we certainly have no right to assert they were wrong, and we trust that they were in fact right. THIS ALL APPLIES TO CHAZAL'S STATEMENTS ABOUT THE WORLD. Rabbi Meiselman's suggested understanding of the their discussion of the mud-mouse is that it was not a statement about the nature of any specific creature, but the HALACHAH of a creature that was believed to exist. The implied existence of the mud-mouse was not based on Torah, definitively or otherwise. It is not clear, at least from the section you have (partially)quoted, what Rabbi Meiselman holds about a non-definitive statement of Chazal which IS based on the Torah (such as teiku)- may we conclude like one of the possibilities based on our own knowledge.

    For those of you not in possession of the book, it reads as follows: (Portions omitted in the post are capitalized).


    "SHELOMO HAMELECH WAS ABLE TO DERIVE FROM HIS STUDIES A COMPLETE PICTURE OF THE UNIVERSE. CHAZAL, BY CONTRAST UNDERSTOOD MANY THINGS AND DID NOT UNDERSTAND OTHERS THIS IS TRUE IN HALACHAH AND IT IS TRUE IN SCIENCE. CONSEQUENTLY even when a tentative statement of Chazal is in error, IT IS NOT AN ERROR IN SCIENCE BUT AN ERROR IN THE INTERPRETATION OF THE TORAH. MOREOVER, IT IS AN ERROR ON CHAZAL'S LEVEL OF UNDERSTANDING, NOT OURS. [NEW PARAGRAPH] THE HUMAN MIND- EVEN THAT OF A TANNA OR AMORA- HAS LIMITATIONS. SOMETIMES A MATTER MUST BE LEFT IN DOUBT- TEIKU. SOMETIMES EVEN A GREAT SCHOLAR MAY ERR. WHEN THAT HAPPENS HE MUST BE PREPARED TO ADMIT THE TRUTH, AS CHAZAL DID IN THE EXAMPLES CITED BY THE AUTHOR OF THE MA'AMAR. NEVERTHELESS, the prerogative of declaring any of their teachings mistaken is granted to them, not to us. For anyone other than Chazal themselves, questioning their conclusions is called being melagleg al divrei Chachamim - "mocking of the words of the Sages" - a crime with very serious consequences." (p. 108)

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  9. I think Natan and many commenters here are missing some key points about Rabbi Meiselman's approach. (1) Saying that Chazal could, theoretically, err regarding a Torah-based understanding of the world does not mean this is likely. (2)Rabbi Meiselman brings strong proofs from Rishonim and early Acharonim that we must assume Chazal were correct about their statements regarding the world even if, at first glance, they conflict with our observations. Anyone who wishes to offer an (intellectually honest) opinion on this issue must see those proofs and address them. Citing an few recent Acharonim is not a sufficient response to these proofs, just as it would not be sufficient in a discussion of Halachah. (3) The designation of statements of Chazal in the book as non-definitive is not at all haphazard- there are definite, well-defined rules. (Like all sugyas, this may require some THOUGHT. It definitely requires at least reading the book)(4) No one is asking anyone to ignore observations. Like all analyses of reality (including those based primarily based on observation- i.e. science), seemingly conflicting facts and/or conclusions sometimes exist. We must attempt to reconcile these through a better understanding. For Torah Jews, the Torah's statements about the world are included in the facts. We trust Chazal's interpretation of the Torah regarding these facts. This is mandated by the Rishonim and Acharonim mentioned above.

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  10. (1) Saying that Chazal could, theoretically, err regarding a Torah-based understanding of the world does not mean this is likely.

    Agreed, Rabbi Meiselman does not think it is likely.

    (2)Rabbi Meiselman brings strong proofs from Rishonim and early Acharonim that we must assume Chazal were correct about their statements regarding the world even if, at first glance, they conflict with our observations.

    No, he doesn't. He brings proofs that CERTAIN Rishonim and Acharonim believed this. Not that no others believed differently.

    Citing an few recent Acharonim is not a sufficient response to these proofs.

    Citing significant Rishonim and Acharonim who held otherwise is sufficient proof that Rabbi Meiselman's claim that "nobody held otherwise" is incorrect.

    (3) The designation of statements of Chazal in the book as non-definitive is not at all haphazard- there are definite, well-defined rules.

    We're all ears.

    (4) No one is asking anyone to ignore observations.

    He is demanding that if Chazal are contradicted by science, then we either ignore science, or claim that Chazal were speaking tentatively. There is no other option that he gives.

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  11. "One is that all scientifically-problematic statements of Chazal must be explained as being tentative"

    NO! You forgot the best part. It's not all scientifically problematic statements of Chazal that must be declared tentative statements; it is only those scientifically problematic statements of Chazal which Rabbi Meiselman himself is comfortable with accepting as scientifically problematic, which must be declared as tentative statements. All other cases of presumed "scientific difficulty," obvious to scientists and rational people, but for whatever reason religiously uncomfortable for Rabbi Meiselman and his Meiselmaniacs, are dismissed on the grounds that the science itself is unproven, uncertain, or refuted by the Rabbi Meiselman's thought processes (which supercede the scientific process). And he, Rabbi Meiselman, is the final arbiter of what is and isn't scientifically problematic given that he is an expert and you and everyone else are mere amateurs.

    Whatcha gonna' do, brother?

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  12. The Talmud appears to do the same thing with the Mishna (and other Tannaitic and Amoraic statements) all the time- make אוקימתתא that are extrememly forced and unlikely to be true, in order not to nullify its core principles of analyis of Tannaitic and Amoraic material. Presumably the reason for this is in order to maintain the respect that those great חכמים deserve. Given this tradition that we have in dealing with statements of Chazal, I don't see what's wrong with Rabbi Meiselman doing the same thing.

    Shmuli

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  13. I am still in the middle of the book and wish I had a support group here in Miami to get together and discuss the book. Most of what R' Slifkin says is well-taken. However after reading about 500 pages of the 800-page book, I began to suspect that R' Meiselman was really up to something much more subtle than I had initially given him credit for. But I have to finish reading the book before I comment further.

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  14. NI:(2)Rabbi Meiselman brings strong proofs from Rishonim and early Acharonim that we must assume Chazal were correct about their statements regarding the world even if, at first glance, they conflict with our observations.

    NS: No, he doesn't. He brings proofs that CERTAIN Rishonim and Acharonim believed this. Not that no others believed differently.

    NI: Citing an few recent Acharonim is not a sufficient response to these proofs.

    NS: Citing significant Rishonim and Acharonim who held otherwise is sufficient proof that Rabbi Meiselman's claim that "nobody held otherwise" is incorrect.

    If you're relying that the Rav Hirsch you brought in the post supports that position - well it seems from his Metzitza teshuvah that he would go a length to assume that Chazal were right, and is strong about it too.

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  15. "In my opinion, the first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai." - Rav Hirsch.

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  16. >Presumably the reason for this is in order to maintain the respect that those great חכמים deserve. Given this tradition that we have in dealing with statements of Chazal, I don't see what's wrong with Rabbi Meiselman doing the same thing.

    The gemara does this as a part of a larger strategy of analysis: do your best to provide whatever support possible for each side of an issue, so that both sides are fully explicated and neither can complain of neglect.

    Even so, the gemara, and the rishonim, do not lock-step accept every possible answer provided. (For a simple example, see Rabbeinu Chananel on the first sugya in Bava Batra. He rejects the answers to six questions on היזק ראייה שמיה היזק as forced, and rules against them.)

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  17. "" Is it really impossible for them to have gained knowledge from their intellect or from other sources, and to have considered it reliable? ""

    Personal opinions dont belong in our torah

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  18. "Anyone following Rabbi Meiselman's approach is going to be taking a course in intellectual dishonesty. For some, it will be help them feel happy and superior; for others, the cognitive dissonance will cause great inner turmoil."

    True, only the strong will survive and the weak will be cast away

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  19. It seems to me that when analyzing Rav Meiselman's book and similar opinions expressed elsewhere, we should also be

    asking ourselves what the reasons for the existence of these schools of thought are, meaning what it is that's

    forcing these intelligent if narrow-minded people into making dogma out of what doesn't seem to need to be treated

    as such.

    For example, we whould be asking ourselves:

    1 - Why do some Jews need to feel that Chazal are de-facto infallible?
    2 - Why do they overemphasize the concept of yeradas hadoros beyond all reason?
    3 - Why do we treat learning a sugya about a contract between a man and wife, designed for societal reasons and

    clearly no longer applicable today, with the same reverence as learning about the Lamed Tet melachot?

    Etc.

    There are probably multiple complementary explanations for these phenomena, including the fact that Judaism is,

    after all, a religion and religions tend to be insular and to breed unnecessary dogmas.

    But I believe that to a large degree, the answers to these questions lie in the questions themselves.

    Simply put, if we did not treat Chazal with the reverence with which the Yeshiva-world treats them and if we did

    not attribute to Chazal the characteristics the Yeshiva-world attributes to them, it would be almost impossible for

    us to -

    1 - Allow a legal system established on the basis of cultural norms from 2,000-3,000 years ago to have any impact

    on how we act today. It woudn't be enough to say things like 'We're learning the principles from them and applying

    them today'.
    2 - Allow ourselves to be bound in any way by laws regarding women that were promulgated during a time when women

    were at best, second class citizens.
    3 - Consider the studying of laws that will never be applicable to us as an occupation worthy of our time.
    4 - Read the accounts of the lives of some of these people and not be turned off by them.
    Etc.

    The 'system' seems to be based on the belief that no one in his right mind would buy into it without being fully

    indoctrinated in its dogma first. And this is really true of all of us, not just the Rabbi Meiselman types. While

    many of us may be turned off by what appears to us to be the unnecessarily extreme dogma of Rabbi Meiselman, we are

    actually a lot closer to him, in terms of our need to hang on to dogmas to justify what we do and what we believe

    in, than we're willing to admit.

    This in no way absolves the Yeshiva-world of its tunnel-vision, but I don't think Modern Orthodoxy is fundamentally

    different. The difference is in degrees. Where this leaves us, I have no idea.

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  20. "Whenever Chazal make unqualified statements it indicates that regarding those particular issues the information encoded in the Torah or the methodology for extracting it had not yet been lost.

    This seems truly weird. "Or" seems to imply that when the decryption methodology was lost the information itself was lost as well. It might be legitimate to say that since without a mesorah on the lost methodology of a mitzvah we cannot not have sufficient confidence that a rediscovery of the methodology would give the old/new methodology the same halachic status as the original.

    But can one state that the information was lost without stating that the Torah itself has changed?
    -------
    aptly enough: verification word "mousate" though no mud.


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  21. NI said:

    (4) No one is asking anyone to ignore observations.

    Natan Slifkin said:

    He is demanding that if Chazal are contradicted by science, then we either ignore science, or claim that Chazal were speaking tentatively. There is no other option that he gives.

    NI:

    You are again misrepresenting Rabbi Meiselman's opinion. His general approach to perceived conflicts between statements of Chazal and science is far more multifaceted and subtle than you would have your readers believe. To the best of my understanding, it is as follows:

    (1) We believe statements of Chazal about the world to be a part of Torah shebaal peh, and as such, we treat them as facts.

    (2) When these statements conflict with science, we must distinguish between scientific opinion and clear observations. If the former seems to conflict with a statement of Chazal, we reject the scientific opinion in favor of Chazal, just as we might reject it in light of new observational evidence. If a clear observation seems to conflict with a statement of Chazal, we endeavor to gain a better understanding of each in order to resolve it. This may involve re-interpreting a statement of Chazal, much as meforshim re-interpret Gemaros to resolve apparent contradictions within shas. (Every student of Gemara encounters this on a daily basis- it is a basic part of Gemara learning.) Just as we view Chazal's statements as facts in our understanding of the world, we view observations as facts in our understanding of Chazal. Rabbi Meiselman offers a number of examples of this approach.

    (3) Hypothetically, if there existed a conflict between Chazal and science that we did not succeed in resolving, we would leave it unresolved, confident that it is ultimately resolvable, and hopeful of one day gaining the greater understanding necessary to discover the resolution. (Scientists, too, live with unresolved conflicts, and do not necessarily abandon otherwise-sound theories because of them, as Rabbi Meiselman points out in the book).

    (4)Rabbi Meiselman never once suggests that the catch-all solution to apparent conflicts is to say Chazal were speaking tentatively. As far as I am aware, he uses this idea regarding only two of the many apparent conflicts discussed in the book. In each of these cases, he does so because he feels this is a reasonable understanding of the case under discussion. In each case, he explains his basis clearly. (The mouse partially composed of mud, for example is not a direct statement regarding the existence of such a creature, and may be understood as merely explaining its theoretical Halachah. [They may have believed the creature exists. This is beside the point, which is that that the implied existence of the creature need not be understood as based on Torah]. This is in contrast, for example, to the egg-laying ataleif. Since they simply said it exists, it must be understood as a Torah-based statement. The non-definitive approach can't be applied here, and isn't.) (In the case of lice, they stated the halachah of a known, familiar, definitely-existing creature. It is implicit in the book that this type of case must also be understood as definitive.)

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  22. Fine. So what I said was correct, except that there is a third option: Chazal were correct, but in a way that we do not know how to explain.

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  23. occamselectricshaverDecember 16, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    Lion of Israel -

    I think you make some great points (though it is somewhat off topic - so I apologize RNS for continuing this). Though I do believe that modern orthodoxy does differ from RW orthodoxy in its approach to cognitive dissonance and dogma in the following way. (Disclaimer: I am MO, and very much not RW). Modern Orthodoxy has a tendency to presume that traditional Judaism is in some way consistent with the modern sensibilities that any contemporary civilized person holds near and dear. In order to do this, I believe that Modern Orthodoxy conveniently "looks the other way" when confronted with some seemingly nasty relics of an ancient dogmatic religion.
    Notions of pluralism, freedom of inquiry and tolerance, while all fundamentally rooted in our modern worldview, are very hard to sincerely justify when judged against the biblical and rabbinic literature. Examples which are commonly given are the commandment to kill the Amaleki, the reduced status of women, biblical and rabbinic attitude towards gentiles (am hadomeh l'chamor; zirmas susim sirmasam), and others. In my opinion, there are much more fundamental discrepancies such as the notion that belief in (this specific persona of) God is strictly mandated and adherence to His ritual commandments on the basis of this belief is required, by pain of various forms of severe punishment. No one can successfully argue that the person who believes in (this specific persona of) God has a better epistemic justification for his believes than one who does not. Contemporary sensibilities would dictate that the most one can do in such a situation is agree to disagree. Any insistence on the part of the former that the latter adopt his (the former's) beliefs by pain of horrible punishment would be viewed as barbaric.
    Somehow in the face of all of this, Modern Orthodoxy (think NCSY, Carlebach, Chovevei, etc.) outwardly and inwardly propagates the notion that Judaism is a lovey-dovey inclusive and accepting religion.
    This is just another way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance of being brought up in a dogmatic religion while in contemporary times. RW Judaism doubles down on the dogma at the expense of the modern sensibilities which are not easily dismissed while MO Judaism doubles down on the modernity at the expense of the recognition of the true nature of traditional Judaism.

    I'd love to hear people's comments on my perspective. This is something which I've thought about a lot and has bothered me a lot.

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  24. I would be interested in hearing more about R. Meiselman's statement "...the information encoded in the Torah or the methodology for extracting it had not yet been lost."

    Why must we believe that the information or methodology has been lost? What is the basis for this belief? If you want to say that Chazal were wrong sometimes, what limits do you set on this? How much can we reject without becoming rudderless Reform Jews?

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  25. occamselectricshaver - if you want to hear people's comments on what you wrote, post an email address. I don't let comment threads go off-topic.

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  26. occamselectricshaverDecember 16, 2013 at 8:38 PM

    my apologies

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  27. Chazal can be wrong on their understanding of physics or biology. They themselves never claimed that it is Torah she'beAl Peh. They themselves only claimed to have the knowledge available to their generation.

    Whether or not they are "wrong" about Torah is not for us to determine, but rather for their own generations, and for the generations that come after to argue with them. There is no other source of Torah, and it is therefore illogical to even suggest a concept of "wrongness".

    Loss of knowledge is unfortunately well documented in Chazal, due to numerous persecutions.

    But whatever is left, that is the Torah that we have to work with.

    The intersection between Chazal not having the accuracy and breadth of knowledge that we have of the modern world, and them having all the authority to determine Halacha, appears to be problematic at first glance.

    But it is not new, it has been dealt with throughout the generations, and there is no need to panic.

    However, claiming what they themselves did not, that their knowledge of the physical world was Torah she'be'al peh, leads to all kinds of problems, as R' Slifkin demonstrated amply.

    Lion, does it suffice to say that intellectual honesty, love of Torah, and deep respect and awe of the Sages _as they are_ does not need a label?

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  28. (1) We believe statements of Chazal about the world to be a part of Torah shebaal peh, and as such, we treat them as facts.

    This, right here, is an error of equivocation.

    "Torah shebaal peh" means two different things.

    First, it means the mesorah - in halacha, interpretation, and methodology - handed down from Moshe at Sinai. As used in that fashion Torah shebaal peh is, in fact, "factual" and must be treated as such.

    But Torah shebaal peh also means the drashot, interpretations, and halachic opinions derived through halachic methodology. And that includes, for example, the opinion of R' Eliezer that Shema of Maariv may be read only through the end of the first watch of the Kohanim, the opinion of the Chachamim that it can be read through Chatzot, and the opinion of Raban Gamliel that Shema of Maariv can be read through Alot HaShachar (as set out in the very first Mishna of Brachot).

    In that usage it is utterly absurd to talk about "Torah Shebaal Peh" as being "facts" that must be treated as such. It cannot be a "fact" that Shema both can (per the "Torah Shebaal Peh" expressed by Raban Gamliel and the Chachamim) and cannot (per the "Torah Shebaal Peh" expressed by R' Eliezer) be read after the end of the first watch. It cannot be a "fact" that Shema both can (per the "Torah Shebaal Peh" expressed by Raban Gamliel) and cannot (per the "Torah Shebaal Peh" expressed by R' Eliezer and the Chachamim) be read between Chatzot and Alot HaShachar. Nor can we treat those expressions of Torah Shebaal Peh as "facts".

    As that example - or the example of any other machlokes anywhere in the Mishna or Gemara - makes clear, statements based not on the Torah Shebaal Peh of Mesorah from Sinai, but on the Torah Shebaal Peh of methodology transmitted from Sinai, are not facts, and cannot be treated as such. They may be (are, in the case of halachic decisions) both normative and determinative of halachic reality, but they are not objective facts and make no claim to be.

    The elevation of a certain subclass of statements based not on "Torah Shebaal Peh of facts from Sinai" but on "Torah Shebaal Peh of methodology from Sinai" to "facts" - particularly statements about the natural world (about which, btw, there is far less reason - as compared to halachic opinions - to say they are based on halachic methodology in the first instance) is an error of logic with tragic consequences. It transforms Chazal into totemic, mythical figures that raise concerns of avoda zara, distorts (by its proponents' own admission!) understanding of gemara and the ideas being conveyed by Chazal, and leads to inflammatory and frankly assur charges that folks who are intensely devoted to Torah (including the likes of R' Hirsch and R' Herzog) are - to quote R' Kornreich - "deniers of the truthfulness of Torah."

    A flawed foundation leads inexorably to a flawed conclusion.

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  29. Dynamic Weight Loss (um . . . ok):

    "" Is it really impossible for them to have gained knowledge from their intellect or from other sources, and to have considered it reliable? ""

    Personal opinions dont belong in our torah


    You are very much mistaken. Personal exercise of human intelligence to understand the Torah very, very much belongs in our Torah. That's why even rejected opinions are brought down in the Gemara, why even poskim we don't hold by today are studied, and why divrei hashkafa from Mesilas Yesharim to the Moreh to Halachic Man are worth learning, and learning from.

    If your position is either (a) it's halacha l'moshe miSinai or nevuah or ruach haKodesh; or (b) it doesn't belong in Torah . . . well, you've just dispensed with pretty much everything we study in yeshiva these days. Rashi? Out. Tosfos? Out. Ritva? Out. And so on, and so forth.

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  30. Simply put, if we did not treat Chazal with the reverence with which the Yeshiva-world treats them and if we did

    not attribute to Chazal the characteristics the Yeshiva-world attributes to them, it would be almost impossible for

    us to -

    1 - Allow a legal system established on the basis of cultural norms from 2,000-3,000 years ago to have any impact

    on how we act today. It woudn't be enough to say things like 'We're learning the principles from them and applying

    them today'.


    I'm sorry, but this parade of horribles is completely ridiculous. We're not "allowing a legal system established on the basis of 2000 year old cultural norms" to govern us - we are allowing a halachic system established by God at Sinai to govern us. If you don't see the difference, there's a problem with your understanding.

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  31. Akiva -

    You just proved my point.

    The fact is that the legal system WAS compiled between 2,000-3,000 years ago. We believe, probably to varying degrees, that in some form or other, that system was given to us at Sinai. Would we accept that every detail of it was truly Dvar Hashem, regardless of how dated some of the concepts seem, if we weren't also taught that the people through whom it has been transmitted over the centuries and who have told us that each word in every Masechet is as relevant to us as ever, are borderline malachim? Probably not

    This is why the people who run our system feel obligated to propagate some of the questionable dogmas contained in it.

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  32. Akiva said:

    "...As that example - or the example of any other machlokes anywhere in the Mishna or Gemara - makes clear, statements based not on the Torah Shebaal Peh of Mesorah from Sinai, but on the Torah Shebaal Peh of methodology transmitted from Sinai, are not facts, and cannot be treated as such. They may be (are, in the case of halachic decisions) both normative and determinative of halachic reality, but they are not objective facts and make no claim to be."

    The Rashba explicitly states that saying Chazal were wrong about the halachah of treifah einah chaya violates the prohibition of "melagleg al divrei Chachamim" even though this halachah is a machlokes Tannoim, so although your point needs to be addressed the Rashba clearly did not consider it compelling.

    (Perhaps he understood that the process of psak will lead to correct conclusions, or perhaps he understood there is hashgacha pratis regarding psakim of Chazal for all generations, or perhaps there is some other explanation. But whatever the explanation is, Rabbi Meiselman's position is firmly based on the Rashba).

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  33. Naar,

    Even if R' Meiselman were based on the Rashba, the Rashba isn't the only deah out there. And there is a vast difference between calling someone "melagleg according to the Rashba's stricter-than-usual interpretation of melagleg" and just saying "you are a melagleg"

    More, the very fact that the Rashba takes this position on an issue that is a machlokes Tannaim calls into question the broad interpretation of melagleg being expressed by R' Meiselman - and particularly suggests that the issue is not saying that Chazal were wrong as a matter of fact on a particular empirical conclusion, but were foolishly wrong. It might help to post the original text of the Rashba, as I don't have access to it.

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  34. Akiva,

    I don't know on what basis you characterize the Rashba's definition of melagleg as "stricter-than-usual". Have you come across other Rishonim that argue on this Rashba? (I haven't).

    "More, the very fact that the Rashba takes this position on an issue that is a machlokes Tannaim calls into question the broad interpretation of melagleg being expressed by R' Meiselman".

    I am sorry, I don't understand what you mean here.

    "- and particularly suggests that the issue is not saying that Chazal were wrong as a matter of fact on a particular empirical conclusion, but were foolishly wrong."

    Actually, it seems to me the opposite is true. Presumably, the Rashba didn't think either side of the machlokes Tannoim was foolish. Nonetheless, since the conclusion l'halachah is einah chaya, he states that it is forbidden to say this is wrong based on observation. Apparently, it is forbidden to say their definitive conclusion was wrong even if the other possibility is not foolish.


    The Rashba is in שו"ת ח"א סימן צ"ח. If you don't have access to the sefer itself (or the Bar Ilan Responsa program), you can find it on Hebrewbooks.org. It is discussed at length in Rabbi Meiselman's book.(He is discussing a claim that a known treifah was observed to live more than 12 months.)

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  35. Can't seem to find it on Hebrew Books (a link would be helpful). That said, it's mashma from the g'mara in bava basra (and the very lashon of melagleg - sneering, scoffing) that it is disrespectful rejection.

    Moreover, it's expressly clear that the Rambam rejects the Rashba's view, since he says, based on observed evidence, that Chazal were wrong on astronomy. Now, granted, your position is that the Rambam believed that Chazal's error in astronomy was some sort of outlier, that they had "lost the mesora" on astronomy and therefore could be wrong there, and nowhere else. The viability of that position is a matter for another time; regardless, under the Rashba's definition as you've described it, the Rambam was melagleg al divrei chachamim in stating that Chazal was wrong in this area.

    Clearly the Rambam did not believe he was being melagleg!

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  36. Akiva,

    First of all, I must apologize. I looked up the Rashba this morning, and I see I have misquoted it. He does NOT mention melagleg. He DOES, however, make it quite clear that we cannot conclude Chazal were mistaken regarding treifah einah chayah, (which is a machlokes Tannaim), so my original point still stands.

    Akiva said: "That said, it's mashma from the g'mara in bava basra (and the very lashon of melagleg - sneering, scoffing) that it is disrespectful rejection."

    The Gemara in Bava Basra(75a) applies melagleg to a student of R' Yochanan who implied that he was not convinced that a startling statement of his Rebbi was true until he corroborated its feasibility on his own. This implies that doubting their words based on our own assessment of their likelihood is itself considered disrespectful rejection. (In any case, it is not relevant to the Rashba I cited- sorry again for the misquote!)

    The Rambam you have cited does not prove anything about whether we may say statements of Chazal based on Torah were mistaken, since he implies their opinions on astronomy were not based on Torah. (perhaps the basis for this is the Gemara in Pesachim).

    Regarding the link, I would like to help you, but I don't know how to create links. The teshuvah itself is too lengthy for me to post. I highly recommend that you find a way to see it yourself, but the gist of it, to the best of my understanding, is:

    Someone claimed that an animal with an extra limb had lived more than twelve months. The question was whether we can consider it kosher since treifah einah chaya. Since this animal lived, it must not be a treifah. The Rashba responds that we cannot say they erred regarding its inclusion in treifos, nor can we conclude that a treifah can live 12 months. The report should be treated with extreme skepticism (perhaps they confused it with another animal etc.), and even if they insist on its truth, their testimony cannot be accepted against the words of Chazal. He subsequently suggests that the rule of treifah einah chaya may not apply to this particular case. (An extra limb is considered as if removed based on halacha le'moshe mi'sinai. Since its removal would kill it within twelve months, it is halachically considered treifah).

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  37. R' Slifkin-

    Someone has created inappropriate links on a number of comments here (Dec 16). Is there a way to remove them?

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  38. I don't understand what you mean. Where are there links?

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  39. Now I don't see them, so perhaps the computer I was using Friday was targeted. I am computer illiterate, so sorry if I wasted your time.

    Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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