Sunday, January 19, 2014

Guest Post: Rabbi Meiselman's Thesis [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 2)]

Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

“And I’ve already said to you once that if the sages argue in any Hashkafah or view whose result is not at all practical, then it is not appropriate to say ‘the halacha is like so-and-so’” -- Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, Sotah 3:5

“This is how the decision-making process functions in the realm of halacha, and in matters of hashkafah the procedure is no different.” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 624.

In our last post, we examined the Rambam’s position on P’sak in matters that lie outside of  the realm of practical Halacha, in accordance with the positions of Rabbi Aryeh Carmell and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In this post, we’ll examine some objections to our interpretation of the Rambam based on Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s position recently published book.



Rabbi Meiselman’s Thesis

In his recent book, “Torah, Chazal and Science” (TCS), Rabbi Moshe Meiselman seeks to establish that, contrary to appearances, the Rambam’s exclusions of theoretical matters from P’sak is quite limited. His thesis runs as follows:
1. The Rambam maintains that P’sak is completely appropriate for all matters. For some impractical matters, such P’sak is optional, but never inappropriate. Thus, he writes: “The Rambam remarks in at least fives places that he will not necessarily render decisions on issues with no practical ramifications. [emphasis mine]” (TCS pg. 616).  By interpreting the Rambam as saying that he will "not necessarily" render a P'sak, he is saying that P'sak is still relevant, but optional, in cases that don't involve practice.
2. The Rambam mentions in at least 5 different places that that he will not give P’sak because there is no practical impact to the disagreement.  Rabbi Meiselman maintains that for three of the five disagreements where the Rambam mentions this, he does in fact “rule definitively” in the Mishneh Torah.   Since the Rambam does actually issue a ruling to resolve these disagreements in Mishneh Torah, he must have meant that P'sak was possible, but not required in theoretical matters.  
For example, the Rambam mentions in Sefer Hamiztvos, negative commandment 133 that there is an argument as to whether a non-Cohen who eats T’rumah is liable for “death at the hand of heaven” or merely lashes. Since either way the violator is liable for lashes, because those liable for "death at the hand of heaven" also receive lashes, the Rambam references his principle, and refrains from giving P’sak. However in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Trumos 6:6, the Rambam does “give a ruling,” according to Rabbi Meiselman, that the violator is liable for “death at the hand of heaven”. (TCS, pg 617)
3. The Rambam’s rule would not apply to what Rabbi Meiselman terms “hashkafic questions”, because such questions have practical import. There are practical halachos defining the boundaries of allowable belief and how a person’s beliefs impact the their halachic status. For example, the Rambam maintains (in opposition to other authorities) that a person believing in God’s corporeality is a “Min”. (TCS pg 619-620). Rabbi Meiselman argues that none of the five places where the Rambam mentions explicitly that he will refrain (as Rabbi Meiselman characterizes it) from giving a P’sak is an example of “hashkafa”.
According to Rabbi Meiselman, the Rambam applies the methods of P’sak when he rejects what he (the Rambam) maintains are minority opinions in “hashkafa”. For example, the Rambam rejects the existence of “Yisurin shel ahavah” (afflictions of love) and dismisses the mention of this concept in Talmud as the product of a minority opinion. According to Rabbi Meiselman, the Rambam was rendering a P’sak in the usual fashion, by following the halachic principle of Rov (majority rule).   Since he was paskening according to the Rov, he dismissed the minority opinion as he would in any case of halachic P'sak.

Based on these arguments, Rabbi Meiselman concludes that the Rambam maintains that with regard to a question in “Hashkafah”, “the conclusion reached has the same status as any other halachic decision”. (TCS, pg 622).

Rabbi Meiselman’s immediate purpose in establishing his thesis that there is no difference between P’sak in halacha and “hashkafah” is to counter the approaches of modern authorities such as Rabbi Aryeh Carmell to resolving the apparent conflicts between science and the Torah.  Rabbi Carmell engaged the issue, in part, by reinterpreting pesukim in light of modern scientific discoveries about the age of the universe. All such interpretations are novel, because pre-modern authorities generally worked with the assumption of a young earth as implied by the plain meaning of Bereishis. Rabbi Carmell leveraged the Rambam’s principle that there is no P’sak in matters outside halacha to give us the freedom to interpret the pesukim in light of the findings of modern science:
Are we bound to the literal meaning of the verse, or is there room for interpretation? No halachah is involved here so in principle the road to reinterpretation should be open. One more element is required: compulsion. As we have seen many times above, we reinterpret only if we see a compelling need to do so” (see “Freedom to Interpret”, pg. 10).
Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan said the following:
[T]he Rambam says clearly that in questions of hashkafah or history, there is no P’sak. In other words, if an opinion is found in Chazal or in our accepted Torah seforim, one cannot say that we do not posken like that opinion. Thus, the Rambam often takes a daas yachid (the opinion of just one person) and builds an entire hashkafah on it. He may use this opinion because it fits into his system of logic, even though it may be a minority opinion. He can do this, since the entire concept of P’sak only applies to questions of halachah and not to questions of hashkafah.” (see “The Age of the Universe”, pg 5-6).
Rabbi Meiselman strongly disagrees with this approach and seeks to undermine its premises by challenging the notion that there is no P’sak outside of practical halacha. (TCS pg. 615 note 14).

In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman's thesis about the Rambam’s position is difficult to accept. In the next set of posts, we’ll examine in detail the elements of Rabbi Meiselman’s position so that the reader can form a judgement as to its validity.

The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.

21 comments:

  1. "Since the Rambam does actually issue a ruling to resolve these disagreements in Mishneh Torah, he must have meant that P'sak was possible, but not required in theoretical matters."

    Or it could simply be his opinion based on his own reasoning. Indeed this appears to be what the Tosfos Yom Tov writes on the Mishnah in Sotah 3:5. The Mishnah (and the previous Mishna) deals with a dispute as to whether the effect of the bitter waters may be delayed if the woman has some merit (e.g. she took her sons to school). This dispute has no practical halachic ramification. And so the Rambam writes:
    שאין אומרים שם הלכה כפלוני ואין הלכה כבן עזעי
    Yet, as the Tosfos Yom points out:
    והרמב״ם בחבורו פרק ג׳ העתיק דברי רבי
    So why then does the Rambam actually cite a (definitive) opinion, if he wrote that we don't issue a psak in such cases?
    Here's his second answer:
    א״נ לא להלכה כתב כן שכבר כתב בפירושו שכשיש מחלוקת בין החכמים בסברת אמונה אין תכליתו מעשה מן המעשים. שאין אומרים שום הלכה כפלוני ע״כ. אלא משום דמסתבר טעמיה רבי ראה להעתיק דבריו

    The Tosfos Yom Tov explicitly writes, "לא להלכה כתב כן" - i.e. that the Rambam didn't write choice of one Tanna over the other as "a Psak"- rather he was just stating his opinion since he found one Tanna's reasoning (more) logical. This blatantly contradicts what Rav Meisselman wrote.

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  2. The Tosfos Yom Tov explicitly writes, "לא להלכה כתב כן" - i.e. that the Rambam didn't write choice of one Tanna over the other as "a Psak"- rather he was just stating his opinion since he found one Tanna's reasoning (more) logical. This blatantly contradicts what Rav Meisselman wrote.

    Ephraim, thank you very much for this excellent source. I added a link at the top of the post to point to the page on hebrewbooks.org where you can find this source: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37944&st=&pgnum=99. Of course, Rabbi Meiselman need not agree with the Tosfos Yom Tov, so I have more analysis in my next post that I think would support the Tosfos Yom Tov's position.

    That said, I think that most people would be (rightly) more convinced by the analysis and authority of the Tosfos Yom Tov than by my analysis so this adds a lot of weight.

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  3. Actually, the problem arises in Sefer ha-Mitzvot, negative commandment 133, itself. For at the beginning of the mitzvah the Rambam states that a zar who eats Terumah incurs death at the hands of heaven. Then he cites his comment in his Commentary on the Mishnah that in such matters of debate he does not pasken. Kashya reisha a-seiyfa.

    Lawrence Kaplan

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  4. To add to Ephraim's point that the Rambam was only theorizing in the Mishneh Torah: In the end of Hilchos Melachim when he discusses the Messianic Era, the Rambam explicitly states that everyone is merely conjecturing since no one actually knows what will happen. Yet then he proceeds to tell us things that will happen. Obviously, he was just expressing his opinion on the matter, just as everyone else's opinions are jus opinions.

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  5. BTW for a revised version of Rabbi Kaplan's talk which corrects a couple of errors (source of Gemara about aliens, seventh instead of sixth cycle in Livnas HaSapir), see
    www.lulu.com/sumseq
    where one can also buy a print copy for a few dollars (non-profit)

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  6. To those wondering why their comments are not appearing: As it says above the comment submission box, ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.

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  7. The Rambam brought from Sanhedrin and Sotah are not matters of 'emunah' that one is obligated to believe with relation to any mitzvah. You need to bring such a source to support your thesis. This means the Tos. Yom Tov is also irrelevant to this discussion. If allegorizing certain psukim would be considered an invalid interpretation of the Torah, then it would fall under an obligation, and would not be in the category of believing about what happens to a sotah, or who has olam ha'ba etc. that the Rambam is speaking about.

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  8. You have just summarized the basic change that Haredism put on Judaism. This is how it has attempted to turn it into a cult.

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  9. Professor Kaplan: Great observation; I completely missed that. However, I would say that the citation from MT is a more compelling case for Rabbi Meiselman's thesis, since you could answer the internal contradiction in Sefer Hamitzvos by saying that former and latter parts of that entry were intended to be read as one whole.

    First Last: Thank you for this example.

    Reuven Meir: Thank you for the link.

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  10. hashkafa said...
    The Rambam brought from Sanhedrin and Sotah are not matters of 'emunah' that one is obligated to believe with relation to any mitzvah. You need to bring such a source to support your thesis. This means the Tos. Yom Tov is also irrelevant to this discussion. If allegorizing certain psukim would be considered an invalid interpretation of the Torah, then it would fall under an obligation, and would not be in the category of believing about what happens to a sotah, or who has olam ha'ba etc. that the Rambam is speaking about.


    "hashkafa", you seem to be reprising Rabbi Meiselman's third point. The Tosfos Yom Tov is most certainly relevant to his second argument. And obviously Rabbi Meiselman thought that the citations to Sanhedrin and Sotah were relevant to the general topic of P'sak in matters of belief because he himself brings them down in his book and attempts to explain them as statement about "optional p'sak".

    I'll deal with Rabbi Meiselman's third argument in a later post in the series.

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  11. All the important sources that you have discussed so far, and probably those you will discuss in future posts, have already been discussed at length and with great erudition and nuance by Professor Dovid Henschke in his article, על גבולוליה של הכרעת ההלכה: לתולדות שיטת הרמב"ם ולגלולי הגישות שברקעה, דעת 61, קיץ תשס"ז, עמ' 49-72. There he discusses all the relevant sources with the depth that he is famous for. His thesis is that the Rambam changed his mind on the issue of P'sak of beliefs, an idea which works even better for RM. Prof. Marc Shapiro disagrees with him in his recent article "Is There a 'Pesak' for Jewish Thought?", Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief, Beer Sheva 2012. Shapiro believes that the Rambam is only stating his personal opinion, like the Tosfot Yom Tov that Ephrayim V brought.
    The fact that you were not aware of this Tosfot Yom Tov, which both Henschke and Shapiro bring, implies that you are not aware of their seminal research. Please read their articles before continuing these posts. Their research and discussion will undoubtedly raise the discussion to a much higher level.

    Ezra

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  12. Ephraim V (and you agree) feels that the Tosfot Yom Tov "blatantly contradicts" R' Meiselman (RM) understanding of the Rambam. I have not read RM's book, therefore I'd like you to clarify understand RM's "first point." Is he saying that the Rambam didn't necessarily have to render a P'sak, but once one does, it is binding. If so, what is RM's source for this?

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  13. The Rambam brought from Sanhedrin and Sotah are not matters of 'emunah' that one is obligated to believe with relation to any mitzvah. You need to bring such a source to support your thesis.

    One other small point. I'm not attempting to advance my own thesis; I'm comparing that of Rabbi Carmell and Rabbi Kaplan with that of Rabbi Meiselman. Rabbi Carmell and Rabbi Kaplan are the ones that use the Rambam to justify their approach.

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  14. "The Rambam brought from Sanhedrin and Sotah are not matters of 'emunah' ."

    You're being intellectually dishonest.These are not matters of emunah? What does the Rambam write in Sotah?

    What does Rav Meiselman claim?
    "The Rambam states that he does not feel compelled to decide issues with no practical ramifications. In the Mishneh Torah, however [...] he often rules even on such matters"
    This is contradicted by the Tosfos Yom Tov. RM claims that the Rambam is issuing a "ruling", and the TYT writes that he issued an opinion.



    "...that one is obligated to believe with relation to any mitzvah."
    This is a circular argument. You seem to be to creating a whole new category of ikkarim based entirely on declaration. How is the belief that Chazal never erred in matters of science (a belief rejected by Tosfos in מנחות לז) an obligation "related to any mitzvah"? Show me one mitzvah whose halacha would change based on belief whether or not Chazal were infallible.


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  15. While the subject is Rambam, why not understand the Rambam as meaning the same as others who preceded him like Rav Shrira Gaon? When in doubt assume a rishon is (pardon the slang) simply going with the flow.

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  16. "The Rambam brought from Sanhedrin and Sotah are not matters of 'emunah' that one is obligated to believe with relation to any mitzvah. You need to bring such a source to support your thesis. This means the Tos. Yom Tov is also irrelevant to this discussion.

    "א"נ לא להלכה כתב כן שכבר כתב בפירושו שבשיש מחולקת בין חהכמים בסברת אמונה אין תכליתו מעשה מן מהמעשים וכו'"

    The Tosfos Yom Tov himself makes the comparison between "matters of emuna" and the Mishna in Sota, so the Tosfos Yom Tov is extremely relevant to the discussion here.

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  17. All the important sources that you have discussed so far, and probably those you will discuss in future posts, have already been discussed at length and with great erudition and nuance by Professor Dovid Henschke in his article, על גבולוליה של הכרעת ההלכה: לתולדות שיטת הרמב"ם ולגלולי הגישות שברקעה, דעת 61, קיץ תשס"ז, עמ' 49-72. There he discusses all the relevant sources with the depth that he is famous for. His thesis is that the Rambam changed his mind on the issue of P'sak of beliefs, an idea which works even better for RM. Prof. Marc Shapiro disagrees with him in his recent article "Is There a 'Pesak' for Jewish Thought?", Jewish Thought and Jewish Belief, Beer Sheva 2012. Shapiro believes that the Rambam is only stating his personal opinion, like the Tosfot Yom Tov that Ephrayim V brought.
    The fact that you were not aware of this Tosfot Yom Tov, which both Henschke and Shapiro bring, implies that you are not aware of their seminal research. Please read their articles before continuing these posts. Their research and discussion will undoubtedly raise the discussion to a much higher level.


    "sanhedrin", you are absolutely correct that I am not a scholar and not qualified to write true research on this topic that would be accepted in any academic journal. I am probably unaware of many, many relevant sources. Thus, I appreciate the input of all the commenters and am incorporating them into the essay when they seem to be relevant. I especially appreciate the input of professional scholars such as Professor Kaplan (and yourself?) because I'd rather be embarrassed and have my blunders corrected than leave blunders in the essay under my name. Undoubtedly, you are correct that a more knowledgeable author would generate a discussion on a higher level.

    With regard to your specific criticism, I did read Prof. Shapiro's article, because R. Slifkin pointed me towards it, but not that of Prof. Henschke and I reference them in Part 3. I also passed the basic idea presented in Part 4 by Prof. Shapiro and he was kind enough to respond briefly.

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  18. Ephraim V (and you agree) feels that the Tosfot Yom Tov "blatantly contradicts" R' Meiselman (RM) understanding of the Rambam.

    I agree that the Tosfos Yom Tov presents an alternative view. I did not endorse the notion of "blatant contradiction" since Rabbi Meiselman is not bound by the Tosfos Yom Tov.

    I have not read RM's book, therefore I'd like you to clarify understand RM's "first point." Is he saying that the Rambam didn't necessarily have to render a P'sak, but once one does, it is binding. If so, what is RM's source for this?

    Please see part 3 and following. He notes the same seeming contradiction noted by Prof. Henschke.

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  19. Blogger SteveFromCleve said...
    While the subject is Rambam, why not understand the Rambam as meaning the same as others who preceded him like Rav Shrira Gaon? When in doubt assume a rishon is (pardon the slang) simply going with the flow.


    I think that the Rambam was the most explicit on this particular topic and he is not particularly ambiguous. Also the Rambam often disagrees sharply with the Gaonim. However, if there are sources from Gaonim that are relevant, I'd be glad to hear about them, because, as I've mentioned, I'm sure that there are many sources that I'm not aware of.

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  20. Blogger Yisrael said...
    You have just summarized the basic change that Haredism put on Judaism. This is how it has attempted to turn it into a cult.


    My purpose of my posts ares not to criticize any particular group, but rather to understand the topic referenced in the title of my posts. People who have read my comments know that I'm opposed to perpetuating intergroup conflict, and I'd prefer my article did not generate more conflict. You are perfectly entitled to your opinion, but I'd rather not have this discussion continue in the comment threads of my posts.

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  21. My purpose of my posts ares not to criticize any particular group

    Should read: The purpose of my posts is...

    ReplyDelete

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