Sunday, May 31, 2015

Caption Contest!

On a previous trip to Africa, I announced a contest to provide a caption for a certain photograph. Here is the winner:

Right now I am back in Africa, leading another tour for Torah-in-Motion. I arrived early to give some other lectures and film some footage for a documentary that I am working on. Here's a photo from today, and I would like to invite you to submit a humorous caption to go with it:

More amazing pictures coming soon!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

When Charedim Sideline Gedolim

There was a fascinatingly revealing symposium on the topic of chareidim in the Israeli workforce in Mishpacha magazine of Iyar 17/ May 6. The introductory article pointed out that "while no one factor is exclusively to blame for poverty, the linkage between poverty to single-income families and low workforce participation - mainly due to cultural norms and personal choices - is too strong to be ignored. While nearly 70 percent of chareidi women work, only 45 percent of charedi men have jobs."

Now, the linkage between not working and poverty may seem blindingly obvious. Yet many charedim will simply blame their poverty on the government or the stinginess of benefactors. So it is indeed significant that this article pointedly attributes the problem of charedi poverty to low workforce participation.

But things get much, much more interesting.

Following the introduction is a selection of interviews with "expert observers." First is Dr. Chaim Zicherman, a graduate of Chevron yeshivah who became a lawyer and is a spokesman for the "new charedim." He speaks about how there needs to be many role models of charedim who work in professional jobs, and about how charedim should enter the workforce early in order to have a chance of getting a job.

Then they interview Dr. Shlomo Swirski, a sociologist. He talks about the importance of all schools offering a curriculum that will give students the key to higher education. And he states that "charedim have to learn math and English because those are the tools that will enable them to enter the job market."

Next is Prof. Zvi Eckstein, former deputy governor of the Bank of Israel. He stresses the severity of the problem of poverty amongst charedim, he talks about how in the 1960s more than 70 percent of charedim were working, and he too stresses the importance of learning math and English.

Then comes Doron Cohen, who heads a project on "integrating charedim into society and the workforce" - a maskilic job description if there ever was one! He points out that "the government is not against the charedim" and that they simply want "to improve the standard of living and productivity of all the people in Israel." And he notes that even charedim who do work often do not earn much money, due to their lacking experience, qualifications, and social skills.

Finally, Mishpacha interviews Manuel Trajtenberg, a prominent Israeli economist who ran on the Zionist Camp list. He speaks about how "the minimum requirement is for charedim to gain proficiency in math, English, computers, and some of the sciences." He adds that he doesn't think "that has to contradict the credo of what it means to be charedi."

And that ends the symposium.


Did you notice what did not appear in the symposium?!

This is a charedi magazine, written by charedim, for charedim. Its official credo is all about Gedolim and Daas Torah. But where was the Daas Torah for this important symposium? Where were the interviews with Gedolim?! Or at least with other people representing the Gedolim, such as charedi MKs?

There weren't any, because all the Gedolim in Israel are vehemently against every one of the policies stated above. Rav Steinman - one of the more "moderate" of the charedi Gedolim - has repeatedly spoken out strongly against secular education and has denied any connection between secular education and parnassah. United Torah Judaism described Yesh Atid MK Rabbi Shai Piron as “the most dangerous man in Israel for the haredim” because of his intention to introduce math and English into charedi schools.

So what is going on? Jonathan Rosenblum often claims that the Gedolim secretly agree with the importance of integrating charedim into the workforce, but are unable or afraid to say so (and direct MKs in the opposite direction). As I've written in the past, I disagree; I think that Rosenblum is trying to rewrite the Gedolim in his image, due to his discomfort with their views.

Rather, I think that the Gedolim mean what they say. But what they say is utterly unreasonable from any kind of rational perspective, entirely incompatible with any kind of strategy for ending poverty, and impossible to incorporate into a symposium on this issue. And so Mishpacha magazine had no choice but to leave them out. Incredible!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Guest Post: Rabbeinu Avraham vs. the Rambam?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Rabbeinu Avraham vs. the Rambam?

In Rabbi Meiselman's attempt to discredit the Discourse, he finds a number of instances where he believes that the Discourse differs from the position of the Rambam. Since Rabbeinu Avraham strongly defended the his father’s position in many cases, Rabbi Meiselman takes this as evidence that Rabbeinu Avraham did not author those parts of the Discourse. While there is little reason to think that a lack of correspondence with the Rambam would create any doubt as to the authorship of the Discourse, in my humble opinion, there is in fact no divergence to speak of.  Let’s examine the evidence.

Rabbi Meiselman's first example is based a statement in the Discourse about the argument between the Jewish and Gentile sage regarding the path of the Sun at night (emphasis and translation mine):
Consider the wisdom of this secret, that Rabbi [Yehudah HaNasi] did not rule [lo pasak] in accordance with the opinion of the Gentile sages rather he decided according to them using a judgement based on the proof that we discussed. That is why [the Talmud] says “their words appear correct” which is a word that indicates decision [as opposed to “rule”].
Rabbi Meiselman judges this to be a deviation from the text quoted by the Rambam in the Guide 2:8 which we referenced in a earlier post (emphasis mine):
The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favour of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel."
Here the Rambam seems to have a different text of the Talmud from Rabbeinu Avraham.   Rabbeinu Avraham emphasizes that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi specifically used the language "their words appear correct" to emphasize the uncertainty in their arguments.  In contrast, the language quoted by the Rambam is very strong.  Thus, in Rabbi Meiselmans opinion, this conflict indicates that Rabbeinu Avraham was not the author of this section of the Discourse.

In my humble opinion, this divergence proves nothing.   To begin with, the Rambam's quotation provides no evidence that Rabbeinu Avraham's text does not appear.  It is entirely possible that the Rambam's Talmud contained both texts and he chose to illustrate his point with the stronger statement of contradiction to the opinion of Chazal in order to better support his own disagreement with Chazal's theory of the music of the spheres.

In fact, Rabbeinu Avraham does quote the Rambam's text a few lines later when he says:
If it had been clear to him [Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi] definitively with a clear proof that the sphere rotates while the stars are fixed within, he would have ruled according to them [i.e. the Gentile sages], as other of our Sages said elsewhere: "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel."
Thus, Rabbeinu Avraham did have the same text as the Rambam.  It is unclear where Rabbeinu Avraham locates this statement in the Talmud, and it is likewise unclear where the Rambam locates his statement but there is no evidence of conflict between the two.  In fact, the parallel citation of the same phrasing is evidence of correspondence, since our text of the Talmud does not contain this phrase at all.

Morever, Rabbeinu Avraham refers to this same Gemara in his book Milchamos Hashem, where he defends the Rambam against some of his critics:

As you can seen from the graphic above, Rabbeinu Avraham also refers to the same text with the same phrase that he quotes in the Discourse: “their words appear correct”!  Unless Milchamos Hashem is also a forgery, the purported inconsistency proves nothing.

In fact, this example demonstrates why the entire enterprise of picking out “unexpected” phrases from the Discourse is doomed to failure.   The notion that we can look at a text and discern the probability that author could have written that text is fanciful.   Every text is going to have some unusual or unexpected content or we wouldn't bother to read it to begin with.

In this case, Rabbi Meiselman honestly judged the text so out of character for Rabbeinu Avraham, that it must be fraudulent, and despite his great erudition, his judgement proved incorrect.  The reason is straightforward: the entire methodology is faulty to begin with.

Arguing with Authority

Rabbi Meiselman's second example of an inconsistency involves Chulin 124a.   Briefly, a ruling of R. Yochanan is related to R. Nachman.   R. Nachman rejects the ruling and says that "even if R. Yochanan himself had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!"  Later, the discussion is reported to R. Ammi who objects to R. Nachman's language saying "And even if R. Nahman is the son-in-law of the Exilarch shall he make light of the teaching of R. Yochanan?"

However, when the details of the story are properly explained to R. Ammi, he realizes that the ruling given to R. Nachman had been garbled.   With respect to this mistaken version, R. Ammi exclaims: "even if Yehoshua bin Nun had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!" [1]

Rabbeinu Avraham uses this story to support the idea that one should only accept an idea based on its veracity and not based on authority.  R. Ammi would not accept a ruling, even from a prophet, unless it could be explained using the the methods of argument that were given over for deriving halachos.  Similarly, if we see a scientific assertion in the Talmud that does not hold up to scrutiny, we must reject it.

Rabbi Meiselman asks a number of questions here that are, in my humble opinion, quite puzzling. He writes as follows (TCS pg 112):
The Gemara indicates further than an Amora could not even disagree with a Tanna. This, too, is affirmed by the Rambam in all his works.  How, then could an Amora possibly have claimed the right to disagree with Yehoshua bin Nun?  Where do we ever find such an outright dismissal of the authority of a scholar from a previous period of history?
What is more, the author of this piece seems to imply that sevorah -- logical reasoning -- trumps even a mesorah, yet the Rambam writes in his Introduction to Peirush HaMishnayos that a Tanna or Amora cound not disagree even with a contemporary if the latter was backed by a mesorah.  It is hard to imagine, therefore, that any mainstream halachic authority could have penned these words. 
The line of questioning is difficult to understand.  To begin with, it is R. Ammi, not the Discourse, that tells us that he would disagree with Yehoshua Bin Nun.   Rabbi Meiselman's expression of wonder seems better directed at the Gemara than at the Discourse.

Moreover, Rav Moshe Sofer (Chasam Sofer) explictly writes what Rabbi Meiselman claims that no mainstream halachic authority could write.   He asks the following question: why did R. Ammi use Yehoshua and not Moshe Rabbeinu as his example?  His answer is that R. Ammi could disagree with Yehoshua whether or not Yehoshua argued from reason or from tradition (mesorah).  In contrast, we are permitted to disagree with Moshe Rabbeinu only when he argues from reason; doubting Moshe Rabbeinu's tradition would be tantamount to doubting Moshe Rabbeinu's revelation from Sinai and thus rejecting the system of halacha postulated at Sinai.  Thus, both of Rabbi Meiselman's "red lines" were crossed by one of our greatest halachic authorities!

We've shown that the Discourse, as interpreted by Rabbi Meiselman, is not "out of bounds" for a genuine halachic authority.  However, we still need to deal with Rabbi Meiselman's secondary argument:  that the Disource is inconsistent with the position of the Rambam.  While, in my humble opinion, disagreement with the Rambam would not discredit the Discourse,  there is no discernable disagreement to begin with.

In reality, the Rambam does not affirm in all his works that a Amora cannot disagree with a Tanna because the later or lesser figure cannot argue with greater or earlier figures.   In fact, the Rambam rules explicitly that any court can overrule a previous court's ruling based on reason, even if the later court is lesser in wisdom than the prior court.  One is obligated to listen to the court that functions in his or her day, even when it overrules an admittedly greater authority.  This is entirely consistent with the approach of the Discourse. [2]

Rabbi Meiselman also claims the following inconsistency:

  1. The Discourse implies that R. Ammi could disagree with Yehoshua on a matter of reason.
  2. However, the Rambam (Introduction to the Mishna) uses R. Ammi's statement as one of two pieces of evidence that prophecy plays no role in deciding halacha.  

Rabbi Meiselman argues that these two interpretations are contradictory and thus the Discourse is in disagreement with Rambam.

[UPDATE: Professor Lawrence Kaplan points out that I give too much credit in the dicussion below to Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation of the Rambam.  In fact the Rambam states rather directly the same thing that Rabbeinu Avraham states: R. Ammi teaches us that the a Navi's opinion has not additional weight in a halachic argument as a consequence of his greatness, so there is not contradiction to begin with.  So some of the argument below, while still correct, is unnecessary.  More in a later post.] [2a]

In my humble opinion, there is no contradiction at all.  The Rambam's interpretation simply implies that R. Ammi would have disagreed with Yehoshua whether or not he argued based on prophecy or based on his authority and greatness.  To see that this must be the case, suppose that the Rambam meant that R. Ammi would not have accepted Yehoshua's prophecy, but would have accepted his authority, as Rabbi Meiselman suggests.

In that case, R. Ammi's statement becomes nonsensical.  R. Ammi's point is that the halacha in question is so obviously mistaken that he would not accept even Yehoshua's authority in support.   But if he was merely saying that he would not accept the authority of any prophecy, then that would apply even if he had complete 50/50 doubt as to the status of the halacha.  In fact, he would not accept a prophecy even in support of a halacha that he agreed with.  According the the Rambam, no weight at all is given to prophecy in deciding halacha, even in cases of doubt.  The fact that he would reject prophecy would have no polemic value, since we never accept prophecy in deciding halacha.

Rather, the Rambam's reasoning must be as follows: R Ammi was able to use Yehoshua as an example of an unaccepted authority, even though is he is also a prophet, only because we don't accept prophecy in the halachic process.  Were we to accept prophecy to decide halacha, then R. Ammi would likely have used the example of another great figure who was not a prophet, to avoid any ambiguity and make his polemic more convincing.  However, the meaning of R. Ammi's polemic is that he was so sure of the halacha that he would not accept the authority of someone greater to overturn his judgement.  This interpretation is further supported by the fact that R. Nachman's original parallel exclamation, which R. Ammi is strengthening, related to R. Yochanan who was not a prophet.

Finally, Rabbi Meiselman writes that "the author of this piece seems to imply that sevorah -- logical reasoning -- trumps even a mesorah".   We have shown that the Chasam Sofer believes that compelling reasoning can be used to infer a mistake in a tradition, so such an idea would not be by any means controversial.  Nevertheless, such an idea would seem to diverge from the Rambam's position in his introduction to his Commentary on Mishnah, where he indicates that arguments in the Talmud are not based on arguments about whose tradition is more correct.

However, there is nothing in the Discourse to imply disagreement with the Rambam on this point.  Rabbeinu Avraham later quotes the very principle that "If this is a halachah, we shall accept it; but if it is only an inference, an objection can be pointed out. (אם הלכה נקבל ואם לדין יש תשובה)".  Furthermore, the Discourse quite clearly contrasts science and Torah and indicates that although we do bow to the authority of Chazal in Torah matters, we are not required to defend them in matters of science. [3]  In the case of R Ammi, there is no claim of a tradition, nor is the original purported author of the statement available for questioning.  Thus, there is nothing in the Discourse to contradict the Rambam's principle.

Still, one might ask: If Rabbeinu Avraham agrees that one cannot refute a tradition with reason, then how can we be sure that that we can rely on scientific evidence against a statement from the Talmud?   We could assume, of course, that like Rav Hirsch writes, Rabbeinu Avraham simply didn't think that the Rabbis were particularly experts in science, and that they were never speaking from tradition in these areas.  But let's instead make the assumption, arguendo, that some science of of the Talmud stemmed from tradition.  Why isn't Rabbeinu Avraham worried about such a case?  And if we are worried about such a case, then R. Ammi's example cannot help us because he is speaking of a case where there was no claim of tradition.

To answer this, we first need to answer the following question: Why is it that reasoning cannot trump an authentic tradition from Sinai? The answer is quite simple: authentic traditions are the postulates of the Torah's legal system.  It makes no sense to argue, say, that it is illogical to prohibit cooking a kid in its mother's milk, since the Torah's most basic halachos need not conform to any logic. [4]  The Chasam Sofer referenced above makes this clear: if the systems allows argument with Moshe Rabbeinu's mesorah, then you can reject the laws of the Red Heifer as illogical.  The rules of derivation and logic that the Torah gave to us allows to extend and adapt to additional cases not mentioned, but can't be used to override the underlying postulates themselves.  Thus the system relies on a notion of a tradition that is an inviolable starting point. [5]

In science, there is no such limitation.  Any time there is a conflict between science and the apparent words of the Talmud, the question can be resolved by examining the evidence on which the science is based.  If the scientific evidence is dispositive, then we can confidently say that the contradictory words of the Talmud, if taken literally, could not have been an authentic tradition from Sinai.  This is the Rambam's reasoning when he writes that "for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof," and "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back". Whereas in areas of halacha, if reasoning contradicts an authenticated teaching, then the system by its nature tells us to follow the authenticated teaching.  As a result, even under assumptions most favorable to Rabbi Meiselman's thesis, there is no contradiction between the Rambam's consideration for tradition in halacha with the Discourse's (and the Rambam's) treatment of science as always subject to verification.

So far, we haven't see any cases where the opinions of Rabbeinu Avraham contradict the words of the of his father.  But Rabbi Meislman proffers other contradictions between the Discourse and the Rambam.  We'll deal with those, with God's help, in the next post.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] GEMARA. ‘Ulla said in the name of R. Johanan. This rule applies only to the case where a wild beast tore it away, but where it was cut away by the knife [in flaying] it certainly is deemed negligible. R. Nahman enquired of ‘Ulla, ‘Did R. Johanan also say so even if it was as large as a tirta? — He replied. ‘Yes’. ‘And even as large as a sieve?’ — He replied. ‘Yes’. ‘By God!’ said the other; ‘even if R. Johanan himself had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!’ When R. Oshaia went up [to Palestine] he met R. Ammi and reported to him the discussion, ‘So said ‘Ulla and so answered R. Nahman’. Said [R. Ammi] to him, ‘And even if R. Nahman is the son-in-law of the Exilarch shall he make light of the teaching of R. Johanan?’ On another occasion he [R. Oshaia] found him [R. Ammi] sitting and expounding it with reference to the second clause [of our Mishnah] thus: ‘IF THERE WERE TWO PIECES OF FLESH EACH A HALF-OLIVE'S BULK UPON IT. THEY CONVEY UNCLEANNESS BY CARRYING BUT NOT BY CONTACT: SO R. ISHMAEL. R. AKIBA SAYS, NEITHER BY CONTACT NOR BY CARRYING. Thereupon R. Johanan had said: This rule applies only to the case where a wild beast tore them away, but where they were cut away by the knife [in flaying] they are deemed negligible’. Then said [R. Oshaia]. ‘Does the Master refer it to the second clause?’ — He replied. ‘Yes; did ‘Ulla tell it you with reference to the first clause?’ Said the other, ‘He did’. ‘By God!’ said R. Ammi, ‘even if Joshua the son of Nun had told it me by his own mouth I should not have accepted it!’

[2] How can this reconciled with the fact Amoraim don't generally argue with Tannaim?  Rabbi Meiselman mentions the opinions of the Kesef Mishnah and the Rav Elchanan Wasserman.  The Kesef Mishnah offers the explanation that they simply accepted upon themselves not to do so.  Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Divrei Sofrim 2:5) objects to the Kesef Mishna (TCS pg 114 n. 326 IMHO mistakenly identifies this as a concurrence): if so, the Amora could simply disagree with that acceptance.  He argues that the universal acceptance of the Mishna and later the Gemara has the same status as decision by a Bais Din Gadol.  So an Amora could argue with a Mishna, but he would have to get similar universal acceptance or convene a Bais Din Gadol, since a later Beis Din Gadol could disagree with an earlier, greater one and could even disagree with the Mishnah or Gemara.  However, with either explanation, there is no principle that a lesser figure cannot disagree with a greater figure. The Rambam's rule that a lesser and later Bais Din can overrule a earlier and greater one stands.

We can go one step further.   Suppose, arguendo, that lesser figures could not disagree with greater figures and that furthermore, we assume that greater figures preceded lesser figures.  If so, the resulting rule would be that one could not argue with someone more than, say, 150 years earlier.  In that case, late Tannaim could not argue with early Tannaim, but early Amoraim could argue with later Tannaim.  Similarly, early Geonim could argue with the later Amoraim, but later Amoraim could not argue with early Amoraim.   But this is inconsistent with the practice.  So the issue is not precedence or greatness, but the fact that the "redaction" of either the Mishnah or Gemara somehow set a binding precedent; the nature of that authority is disputed, but it does not rest on a principle of complete deference to authority or even deference to a recognized superior.


[3] According to this preamble, then, we are not duty bound to defend the opinions of the sages of the Talmud, concerning medicine, physics and astrology, as right in every respect simply because we know the sages to be great men with a full knowledge of all things regarding the Torah, in its various details. Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah is concerned, we must believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of knowledge, as it is said (Deu. 17, 11.) In accordance with the instructions which they may instruct thee, etc., still it is not necessarily so concerning any other
branch of knowledge.

[4] That is not to say that these laws don't have reasons behind them.  Both Rambam and Ramban empahsize even "Chukim" have reasons.

[5] This doesn't imply that there can never be a mistake in the transmission of a tradition.  Chasam Sofer makes explicit that there can be such a mistake after Moshe Rabbeinu.  Even the Rambam does not have to maintain that the Torah's transmission is infallible, just that we assume it to be so with respect to halacha in some cases.  This can be compared to the following quotation from the Mishneh Torah with respect to the command to follow the words of the Prophets:

The result is that any prophet who arises after Moshe Rabbeinu is not to be believed merely because of the miraculous sign (אות) that he produces. Thus, we don’t say that once he produces a sign, we listen to anything that he says. Rather, it is because Moshe commanded us in the Torah and proclaimed that if one can produce a sign that we must listen to this person. Just as he commanded us to decide matters in accordance with the testimony of two witnesses, even though we don’t know if they actually testified truthfully or not, so too we are commanded to listen to the prophet, even though we don’t know if his sign is a true one or if it was produced by way of sorcery. (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:2)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Guest Post: Is Rabbeinu Avraham an Outlier in Modern Times?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

An Outlier in Modern Times?

In TCS, Rabbi Meiselman mentions that the discussion in the Discourse of the the scientific statements of Chazal were not often cited in until very recent times. Since the Discourse was included in many editions of the Ein Yaakov including two editions translated into English, this is strong evidence that he Discourse was, at the very least, not considered religiously objectionable.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Meiselman maintains that the position of the Discourse is unsupported by modern authorities.  We'll examine that claim here.

Rav Yitzchak Herzog strongly endorses the Discourse, as we noted in the previous post.   How does Rabbi Meiselman approach this?
Rav Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, was the only serious talmid chacham of whom I am aware who ever predicated a major halachic stance upon [the Discourse], affirming both its authenticity and its accuracy. Others have alluded to it casually, but no one else embraced it as an authoritative source upon which to base a halachic position. [...] Rav Herzog gave no justification for the confidence that he placed in the published text of the Maamar. It is unlikely that he was aware of the evidence calling into question its integrity [...] We cannot know what Rav Herzog’s opinion would have been had he examined these sources. (TCS pgs. 101-102)
First, Rabbi Meiselman implies that Rav Herzog stands alone in his affirmation of the position of Rabbeinu Avraham.   In my humble opinion, we have already seen that this is not the case.   Rabbeinu Avraham's position is well supported by other modern authorities. [1a]

Next, Rabbi Meiselman also argues that Rav Herzog based his view of Chazal's scientific understanding opinion on the Discourse.  Since he has discredited the Discourse as a reliable source of information, Rav Herzog's support falls away.

There are two problems with this argument.  First of all, as we have previously seen, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the Discourse.  More importantly, Rav Herzog doesn’t claim that he is basing his opinion on the Discourse. In fact he says that the Orthodox approach to science of the Talmud is “best summed up” by the Discourse. In other words, he is not "relying" on Rabbeinu Avraham, but just using quotations from the Discourse to support his own position. 

In fact Rav Herzog, justifies his position in the same way that Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Hirsch do: based on the way that Chazal themselves acted (emphasis mine):
Another point of divergence between the Jewish and non-Jewish schools is likewise mentioned in the above Baraitha, and with regard to that Rabbi Judah HaNasi says that the opinion of the non-Jewish astronomers seems to him more probable than the Jewish view. This shows, on the one hand, that in such matters the sages of Israel in the majority of cases spoke as scientists and not as religious authorities whose dicta would have to be accepted on the ground of faith in tradition; and on the other hand, it affords us an illustration of their ardent love of the truth. National pride was not allowed to interfere with the progress of knowledge.
Thus, I think that we can firmly state the Rav Herzog’s opinion is an independent confirmation of the ideas of the Discourse, not simply an endorser of the text of the Discourse itself.

How does Rabbi Meiselman deal with the support of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach? He states in a footnote (TCS pg 101 note 293):
Some contemporary authors have asserted that Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach affirmed the validity of the attribution [of the Discourse to Rabbeinu Avraham].
Rabbi Meiselman then quotes the letter of Rav Shlomo Zalman (quoted in the previous post) in Hebrew without translation. Here it is again:
At this point, I don’t remember if there is anyone that actually argues with them or even if there is anyone that could argue with them. Rather it is probable that my intention was that since many bring down the reason of the change in nature (שינוי הטבע) and did not mention at all the improvement in medical knowledge in our times, therefore I noted that it is fitting to cite this position as “some say”. And in particular since with regard to Shabbos, there are those that permit violation of Shabbos even if according to the doctors there is no medical emergency.
Rabbi Meiselman continues:
There is no indication in this quote that Rav Auerbach ever took the time to examine the authenticity of these sources [Rabbeinu Avraham and Rav Sherira Gaon] or the accuracy of the inference made from them. In point of fact he never did, since he did not view the position as mainstream. As the letter indicates, he did not even take the time to investigate who disagrees with him. 
In my humble opinion, this a mischaracterization of Rav Shlomo Zalman’s letter and the inferences to be drawn from it.

To begin with, it is clear from both Rav Shlomo Zalman's approbation and his detailed notes, that he went through the sefer Lev Avraham very carefully.  Without even examining his subsequent letter Rabbi Lerner, his approbation indicates that he felt that the approach of the Discourse was well within the bounds of normative Judaism.

Moreover, there is no claim that his letter to Rabbi Lerner shows that Rav Shlomo Zalman validated the manuscripts of the Discourse; what it shows is that he thought that Discourse was so mainstream that he doubted that anyone could argue with the position it espoused. He says explicitly that his assertion that it should be quoted as “some say” is not because anyone disagrees or even could disagree.

In addition, Rabbi Meiselman asserts that Rav Shlomo Zalman never examined the position of Rabbeinu Avraham very well, since he did not view the position as mainstream.  Rabbi Meiselman doesn't bring any evidence for the fact that Rav Shlomo Zalman never examined the position of Rabbeinu Avraham.    However, we can bring evidence that he did.

He explicitly analyzes the position of Rabbeinu Avraham in his approbation to Lev Avraham referenced above (emphasis mine)

העיקר הוא כשאר הטעמים, ומ״ש ״חז״ל כשדברו וכו׳״ נכון לכותבו רק בשם י״א וגם נכון להזכיר פרט למציצה דאף שלכאורה הוא רק משום סכנה אפי״ה חייבים לעשותה גם בשבת אף אם זה נגד דעת הרופאים

The halacha follows the other reasons, and that which your wrote [of Rabbeinu Avraham’s position], it is proper to write in the in name of “some say” and it is also proper to mention that it excludes metzitzah, that even though its sole purpose appears to be to avoid danger [to the infant]; even so, we are required to do it on Shabbos even if it is against the opinion of the doctors [who say that it does not prevent illness]. [1]
We see that Rav Shlomo Zalman did take the time to understand the contours of Rabbeinu Avraham’s position and to exclude its applicability to specific halachos, such as Metzitzah, already decided by Chazal even if unsupported by current scientific understanding. This matches the approach of the Rambam who accepts the permissibility of the use of some potentially "superstitious" cures even though we now know that they don’t work  (Guide 3:37):
It is not inconsistent that a nail of the gallows and the tooth of a fox have been permitted to be used as cures: for these things have been considered in those days as facts established by experiment.
Rabbi Meiselman then goes on to mention that Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook disagreed with Rav Herzog and opined that “Chazal’s view on proper treatment override those of contemporary medicine”. (TCS pg. 102) 

In my humble opinion, this statement is literally false.  It is difficult to believe that Rav Kook would not generally follow a doctor’s advice if it didn't correspond to that of Chazal and he that, for example, would use an incantation over the the encouragement to cough and/or the Heimlich maneuver to treat a choking victim. [2]

Rather, the Rav Kook is referring to the same case mentioned as an exception by Rav Shlomo Zalman: the use of Metzitzah for a Bris Milah. The fact that we preserve this tradition despite the fact it seems to serve no medical purpose is unsurprising and hardly indicates general Rav Kook’s position on the general interplay of Torah and Science.

However, Rav Kook did write on the general topic of possible contradiction between science and tradition and he was not dismissive of modern science.  For example here, he discusses the apparent contradiction between the age and evolution of the earth with the traditional straightforward interpretation Torah’s account in Bereishis (L’Nevuchei Hador Chapter 5)

That the account of the creation in the Torah is not completely literal, but rather also contains profound parables is an idea that the Rambam has already written of [...] And behold it is well understood that the new methods of scientific investigation that claim that the world evolved [and was not created instantaneously] do not at all violate the foundational principles of the Torah and not even the description [of creation] of scripture regarding the creation [...]
My point here is not reconcile the positions of a thinker with the depth of Rav Kook, but simply to point out that one quotation about the subject of science and the Torah is not enough to clarify his multi-faceted position.

In our next post, we’ll examine Rabbi Meiselman’s evidence of inconsistencies between the positions of Discourse and that of the Rambam and other Rishonim.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1a]  It is unclear what the relevance why reference are considered unimportant if they are not the basis of a major halachic position.  There is no claim that the approach of the Discourse has a major influence on halacha, since it is not a work of halacha.  In addition, by Rabbi Meiselman's argument, any reference, no matter how "casual", which does not treat the Discourse as obviously wrong or heretical, provides strong support that the approach falls within the mainstream of Orthodox Judaism.

[1] What he means is the following:  The only reason that Metzitzah (squeezing or drawing out blood) is permitted on Shabbos as part of a Bris Milah is because is it considered essential to the health of the baby.  Even though modern medicine doesn't see a benefit in this procedure, and even though Rabbeinu Avraham's position implies that we go with follow modern medicine, in this case, where the procedure has become part of the traditional Milah procedure, we would still continue to follow the traditional practice. This can be contrasted with the traditional Lithuanian approach to Metzitzah b'Peh which is avoided when danger to the baby is suspected.

[2] A tanna recited the chapter of Amorite practices before R. Hiyya b. Abin. Said he to him: All these are forbidden as Amorite practices, save the following: If one has a bone in his throat, he may bring of that kind, place it on his head, and say thus: 'One by one go down, swallow, go down one by one': this is not considered the ways of the Amorite. For a fish bone he should say thus: 'Thou art stuck in like a pin, thou art locked up as [within] a cuirass; go down, go down.' (Shabbos 67a)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Cause For Celebration

I was sad to witness an altercation in shul at mincha on Shabbos.

The shul is in the home of a Religious Zionist person and the shaliach tzibbur was likewise dati-leumi. After he finished chazaras ha-shatz, he omitted saying tzidkascha. This was in line with the principle that one does not say tzidkascha on a day when tachanun is not said, and tachanun is not said on the eve of a festive day. And Sunday, being Yom Yerushalayim, is a festive day.

One person in shul started saying tzidkascha very loudly, gesturing to the shaliach tzibbur that he should say it. This person also waved a luach, and announced that the luach doesn't say anything about omitting tzidkascha. (Of course, since the luach was a charedi publication, that was hardly surprising.)

This was most upsetting. Regardless of one's persuasion, one should follow the custom of the shul where one is praying. And it's a pity that he couldn't understand the cause for celebration on Yom Yerushalayim. I was recently re-reading the late Yehudah Avner's wonderful book The Prime Ministers. He describes the bleak scenario that Israel faced, forty-eight years ago:
The Syrian water diversion stratagem continued to menace Israel like a floating mine, and by the late spring of 1967, the situation had deteriorated so drastically that war correspondents began descending on Israel in droves. With mounting audacity, provocation followed provocation as Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser made common cause with Syria, moving his vast army and air force into the Sinai, ousting the United Nations peacekeeping forces, blockading Israeli's Red Sea port Eilat by closing the narrow Straits of Tiran, and signing a war pact with King Hussein that put the Jordanian Army under Egyptian command....
I traveled by bus to Tel Aviv to keep an appointment with another clutch of journalists...
As I drew near the hotel, I caught sight of a hearse pulling up at the gateway of a small park overlooking the beach. Out of it tumbled half a dozen black-caftaned, pie-hatted, bearded members of the chevra kadisha... Immediately, two of the undertakers began pacing the park's grassy area, calling out distances to a third, who wrote down the measurements in a notebook.... A sudden shock of black premonition shot through me. Anxiously, I asked him what it was they were doing, and he coolly replied that his Jerusalem chevra kadisha had been instructed to help the Tel Aviv chevra kadisha consecrate city parks for cemeteries. Rabbis all over the country were consecrating parks for cemeteries. He himself had seen a warehouse stockpiled with tons of nylon rolls for wrapping bodies.
Baruch Hashem for Israel's amazing success in 1967! If only people were more aware and appreciative of this miracle!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Guest Post: Placing the Discourse into a Modern Context

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

The attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni [Rabbeinu Avraham], the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. "It does not at all follow," Abraham Maimuni [Rabbeinu Avraham] declares in his classical introduction to the Aggadah, "that because we bow to the authority of the sages of the Talmud in all that appertains to the interpretation of the Torah in its principles” and details, we must accept unquestionably all their dicta on scientific matters, such as medicine, physics and astronomy. We ought to be quite prepared to find that some of their statements coming within the purview of science, are not borne out by the science of our times... -- Judaism: Law & Ethics, Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog, p. 152

Placing the Discourse into a Modern Context

In prior posts, we showed that the conclusions the Discourse was consonant with the thought of the Rambam with Rabbeinu Avraham’s other writing.   What about modern reactions to the Discourse since its rediscovery?

Rav Herzog, quoted above, maintains that the words of Rabbeinu Avraham are in fact a summary of “attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning”.   In other words, according to Rav Herzog, the Discourse is hardly an outlier.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach seems to agree.  The Sefer Lev Avraham mentions that one should not follow the medical advice of the Talmud.   Rabbeinu Avraham is quoted as one of the authorities who explain why: the medicine of the Talmud was based on contemporary understanding and does not derive from the Torah.  Obviously then, we are not obligated to follow it.  Rav Shlomo Zalman notes in his approbation that the Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation should be quotes with the preface "some say" (Yesh Omrim) indicating that this is not that majority position.

Based on this, one might imagine that Rav Shlomo Zalman, while not discounting Rabbeinu Avrahams position entirely, doubted the position of Rabbeinu Avraham.  However, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lerner followed up with Rav Shlomo Zalman to ask who he was referring to when implied that the majority disagreed with Rabbeinu Avraham.  Rav Shlomo Zalman answered as follows (emphasis mine):

כעת אינני זוכר אם יש מישהו שממש חולק או אפילו אם יש מישהו שיכול לחלוק עליהם, אך יתכן שכוונתי דהואיל ורבים כתבו הטעם של שינוי הטבע ולא הזכירו כלל מפני שיפור הידע בדרכי הרפואה בזמנינו, לכן העירותי שראוי לכתוב בשם "יש אומרים", ובפרט שבעניני שבת יש שמתירים מלאכת שבת אף שלדעת הרופאים אין שום סכנה
At this point, I don’t remember if there is anyone that actually argues with them or even if there is anyone that could argue with them.  Rather it is probable that my intention was that since many bring down the reason of the change in nature (שינוי הטבע) and did not mention at all the improvement in medical knowledge in our times, therefore I noted that it is fitting to cite this position as “some say”.  And in particular since with regard to Shabbos, there are those that permit violation of Shabbos even if according to the doctors there is no medical emergency.
Thus, Rav Shlomo Zalman makes clear what is clear to most people in modern times: there have been obvious advancements in medical knowledge that supersedes the understanding of the Talmud and no one can really doubt this.   Those who give other reasons cannot argue with the fact that medical science is much improved over that of ancient times.  However, in halachic contexts, the other reasons (e.g. changes in nature) are often cited without mentioning the position of Rabbeinu Avraham.

In addition, in the religious context, we sometimes do permit Sabbath violations based on the dangers mentioned in the Talmud even though we don't actually treat the situation as dangerous medically.  For example, we perform Metzitzah even though it seem to have no medical benefit and would otherwise be prohibited on Shabbos.  As another example, a healthy postpartum mother is permitted by many to violate Shabbos even though we don't treat her as in danger medically.  In those halachic contexts, the reason brought down most often should given priority while the reason given by Rabbeinu Avraham is secondary.

Secondarily, we see from Rav Shlomo Zalman that the explanation "changes in nature" is not contradictory to a belief that modern medicine has made progress since Sages of the Talmud.  Those that proffer "changes in nature" for following modern medicine over that of the Talmud need not argue or disagree with Rabbeinu Avraham's position.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch also explicitly supports Rabbeinu Avraham's approach:
However, it seems to me that the guiding principle every student of our sages' words should bear in mind is that our sages were the scholars of the Godly religion and were the recipients, transmitters and teachers of God's guidance, ordinances, commandments and statutes; they were not especially natural scientists, geometers, astronomers or physicians except as it was necessary for their comprehension, observance and performance of the Torah – and we do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai. 
To these voices, we can add the words of Rav Yonah Merzbach in his polemic against the modern geocentrists.  His position is that it is Mitzvah to continuously grow our understanding of the physical universe over time (translation mine):
Man was commanded to "replenish the earth, and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28) -- the command includes subduing the forces of nature, forces that were hidden in the creation, which was created by the maker of all things.  In order to subdue them, one must investigate and understand them.  It is well known, and a tradition in our hands, that before the end-times there will slowly be revealed to the eyes of all, many of the secrets of the creation, and God's honor will be thereby elevated.
And in truth, within the past few hundred years, and especially in the past few decades, [1] many of the of the secrets of nature have be deciphered by Man.  The vast distances of space in the universe and the paths of the stars have been clarified;  hidden waves invisible to the eye have been revealed.  The structure of the tiny atom has been deciphered, and within it is contained a mighty power capable of destroying worlds, except that its creator restrained it with a mysterious power that holds it together.  If not for that, all things would disintegrate in an instant...Blessed is the one who in his goodness renews, every day, the act of creation.

Rav Merzbach implies that that we are commanded to increase our knowledge of natural law and that we have in fact rapidly done so, and that this is a sign of progress.  To those who try to learn science from the Torah, he says:
To the masters of [those infused with] the holy spirit, and to them alone, are revealed the ways of nature and its laws from the verses of scripture and the words of our sages of blessed memory.  Others are liable to make errors in this.  The Torah was not written to be a book of natural science, and it was not for this purpose that our sages of blessed memory said what they said.  Whoever wants -- and there were some like these -- to prove that there is a boundary to the sky in the east and the west, or that the earth is flat and not spherical, relied on the statements of our sages of blessed memory and erred, because they didn't understand that "the Torah speaks in the language of man" (see Rambam, Yesodei Hatorah, 1:9 and 1:12) and in like manner spoke our sages of blessed memory and similar things can be found in the figurative language of our prayers and our praises.  These words are only an outer vestment for the extremely deep matters, and riddles by which to express secrets (see the Rambam's introduction to the Commentary on Mishnah).
Finally, we can add Rav Avraham Yishaya Karelitz, (the Chazon Ish) who asserts that medical knowledge today is greater than that at Chazal’s time, at least in some ways.  According the Chazon Ish, if Chazal had achieved the level of medical knowledge of our modern times, they would have decided the Halachos of Treifos differently than they actually did (חזון איש - אבן העזר (27:3:
In truth it appears that God created cures even for Treifos (animals considered mortally wounded) [...] but they were not revealed in every generation or every place.  That there are those that were revealed and then forgotten and all of them were ordered and organized from God at the time of the creation and it was given over to the sages [of the Talmud] to establish the laws of Treifos according to their holy spirit which rested upon them [...] we have no new Torah [laws] after them so the laws of Treifos were established according to God’s providence at that time [of the close of the Talmud] and those diseases which were fatal at that time, because God had not yet given to his creations a cure for them, would considered the fatal conditions [Treifos] that the Torah forbid both at that time and for the later generations.  And it is possible that it was not only in the discovery of medicinal drugs and the like alone that our time is different, but also in the changes in living things[...] (emphasis mine)
We also see that the Chazon Ish affirms that "changes in nature" and "progress in medicine" are not two mutually exclusive explanations, but can exist side by side.  An authority citing "changes in nature" is not thereby expressing disagreement with Rabbeinu Avraham.

Despite these references, Rabbi Meiselman in TCS claims that the Discourse is unsupported in modern times. We’ll address that assertion in the next post.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] Written in 1975

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Guest Post: Was the Discourse "Lost in Translation"?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

In the Arabic Version, Rabbeinu Avraham always quotes his sources in full. In the Hebrew, by contrast, these references are generally shortened, sometimes by tens or hundreds of words. This makes sense if the translator’s goal was not to preserve a faithful copy of the “Ma’amar” [Discourse] for posterity... -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman TCS pg. 99

The Accuracy of the Translation

The full Hebrew version of Discourse that we have today is a translation from the original Arabic. Is there any way for us to verify that the translation was competent or accurate? Happily, the answer is "yes".  While it is not possible to validate the entire translation, an Arabic version exists for approximately one third of the Discourse.  Rabbi Meiselman stipulates that "[a] comparison of the published text with the surviving Arabic segment reveals that the translation is generally competent." (TCS pg 97). [1]

Nevertheless,  Rabbi Meiselman raises a number of issues with the translation which he believes places doubt in its accuracy:
  1. There are a number of places where the Hebrew translation differs from the Arabic including one case where the meaning of the text is completely reversed.
  2. The translator has “used poetic license to spice up the text”.
  3. The translator has added words to either clarify the text or for “innocent embellishment”
  4. The translator in one case includes a translation which “bears no relation to the extant Arabic version at all”.
In my humble opinion, these issues provide no basis at all for doubting the reliability of the text.  In order to analyze these issues, we'll need to take a deep dive into the claimed differences.  (I encourage you to stay with it, but if your eyes start to glaze over at some of the details, please skip down to the next section where we discuss some points which are not tied so closely to the specific texts).

We'll base our analysis on a side by side comparison of the Hebrew translation of the Discourse and the new Hebrew translation from the surviving Arabic fragments which can be found in the Appendix of TCS. 

Let’s start by looking at the one case where the meaning of the text has purportedly been reversed. Obviously, if the translator gets things backwards, this could indicate a serious deficiency.

 (The text on the left is the Discourse in Hebrew.  The text on the right a new translation of the Arabic version.)

This bit of the Discourse discusses the following Midrash (Taanis 31a):
In the future, the Holy One, praised be He, will take a dance for the righteous in the garden of Eden placing Himself in the center, and everyone will point at Him with his finger and say, (Is. 25, 9) 'Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’  (Soncino Translation)
Rabbeinu Avraham unsurprisingly rejects the plain meaning of the Midrash as a gross anthropomorphism.  The phrase "in the future" indicates that the Midrash is actually describing an element of the non-physical world to come.  Souls in the world to come, now detached from the corrupting influence of their physical bodies, can come to a higher understanding of God than they could while attached to a body in this world.  The happiness of a dance is an allegory for the happiness that the soul experiences at its new deeper understanding of God, represented by the pointing of the finger.

The “old” translation of the Discourse has the following (the bold section of the translation is where the Rabbi Meiselman claims that the meaning has been reversed):
The reward for the righteous who are remembered for life in the world to come, is an understanding of God, the elevated one, that they were not able to understand in this world in any manner. This is the ultimate good such that there is none higher than it. And he allegorized this happiness of this understanding as the happiness of a dance. And he also compared the understanding of each individual, that which he was not able to understand initially [while in this world], [with the allegory] "and each and every one gestures towards Him with a finger.”
The new translation has it this way:
The reward for the righteous who are remembered for life in the world to come is their understanding of Him, the elevelated One, what was impossible for them to understand in this world. This is the ultimate reward and the pinnacle of happiness, and he allegorized it to the happiness of a dance. And he allegorized what each of them reached in understanding of Him, the elevated One, in saying, each and every one of them gestures at Him with his finger.
The meaning is precisely the same!  One text says that the soul reaches a new level of comprehension, while the other says that it has a level of comprehension which it was not able to achieve before.  It appears that the translator has correctly clarified the meaning of “the understanding of each individual” as the new understanding achieved in the world to come compared to that which was achieved previously in this world.

Here is another section that Rabbi Meiselman takes issue with.  Rabbeinu Avraham continues in his explanation of the Midrash.  In the Midrash, the participants in the dance recite a Pasuk which refers to God's salvation.  This indicates the fact that the soul survives the destruction of the body in death.

Rabbi Meiselman claims that the translation has been "spiced up" and embellished, and new text has been interpolated.  Let's investigate:

The old translation:
And he brought a proof of the escape of the intellective soul from the wrath and the fury, with God’s help, in that which the pasuk says “and he will save us”.
The new translation:
And he brought proof of the privilege and the escape from the true destruction in the next world in that which the pasuk says “and he will save us”.
Rabbi Meiselman’s first criticism of this translation is the addition of the words “intellective soul” in the translation. In my humble opinion, the intent of the translator was clear. He understood that Rabbeinu Avraham did not believe that one lives on intact as a physical being in the world to come; rather the body is destroyed while the intellective soul lives on. (See Mishneh Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 4:14-16 where the Rambam make this explicit).  Thus the “added” words do not alter the meaning in any way, but simply serve to clarify.

Next, Rabbi Meiselman characterizes the use of the phrase “the wrath and the fury” in place of the “true destruction” as an attempt by the translator to use “poetic license to spice up” the text.  He also characterizes the words “with God’s help” as an “innocent embellishment”.  However, the intent of the translator with both of these seems clear.  It is traditional to substitute a euphemism or otherwise avoid direct reference to very negative occurrences and to soften them. The words “the wrath and the fury” were not chosen at random. They are a reference to the same words in Deuteronomy 9:19, where they mean precisely destruction.
כִּי יָגֹרְתִּי, מִפְּנֵי הָאַף וְהַחֵמָה, אֲשֶׁר קָצַף יְהוָה עֲלֵיכֶם, לְהַשְׁמִיד אֶתְכֶם
For I was in dread of the anger and hot displeasure [the wrath and the fury], wherewith the LORD was wroth against you to destroy you.
The addition of the words “with God’s help” is not an embellishment, but a expression of hope that we are not afflicted with such a punishment.

[Edit: Commenter "Magiha" points out an alternate explanation here: the Roshei Teivos (abbreviation) for "with God's help" and "the world to come" ("B'Ezras Hashem"/"B'Olam Haba") are identical.  Thus, the Hebrew translator could have used the abbreviation, which was then expanded incorrectly by a later copyist].

In the end, I believe these three criticisms are misplaced because they evaluate the translation by the standards one would apply to a modern scholarly one. In a modern translation, the words “intellective soul” would be surrounded by square brackets to make clear that the words are added to aid the reader. The medieval texts have very little in the way of punctuation, and such a convention was neither yet invented nor available to the translator.  The other two “changes” in the paragraph reflect the fact that the translator approached the translation as a religious act rather than as a detached scholarly effort.  The bottom line is the translation here is completely accurate; what Rabbi Meiselman proves is that the translation is not modern.

Let's examine Rabbi Meiselman's example “where the translation bears no relation the extant Arabic at all”. (TCS pg. 98).   The context is Rabbeinu Avraham’s explanation of the following Aggadah (Berachos 5a)
R. Levi b. Hama says in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: A man should always incite the good impulse [in his soul] to fight against the evil impulse. For it is written: Tremble and sin not. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him study the Torah. For it is written: 'Commune with your own heart'. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him recite the Shema'. For it is written: 'Upon your bed'. If he subdues it, well and good. If not, let him remind himself of the day of death. For it is written: 'And be still, Selah'.

Here is the old translation on the right and the new one on the left:

The old translation explains that the aggadah is providing advice on the method to subjugate his passions and desires to his intellect. The advice to “let him study the Torah” works as follows: one should both concentrate on and enunciate pesukim that involve the subjugation of human desires.

Rabbi Meiselman points out that the new translation merely mentions that the recitation of pesukim helps because speech is the “vessel” of thought and so reinforces proper thought, but says nothing about specifically mentioning pesukim that involve the subjugation human desires. Did the translator make that part up and insert a “translation [that] bears no relation the extant Arabic at all”?

It is easy to see that the answer to this question is “no”, if you read the passage in context. Here is the preceding paragraph:

Here, Rabbeinu Avraham explains that the first step is to subjugate human desire through proper thought.  Then, if this is not sufficient, the advice is to recite pesukim, since speech reinforces thought.  The translator interpreted this to mean that the topic of the pesukim themselves would the subjugation of human passion.

Moreover, the translator didn’t invent this idea. Rabbeinu Avraham himself supplies this explanation in the following paragraphs:

Here, Rabbeinu Avraham explains why reciting Shema is the next piece of advice that the Gemara has. He says here explicitly that one of the reasons for this advice is that the Shema includes the subjugation of the passions in the commandment “do not stray after your heart and after your eyes”. The translator applies Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation for reciting Shema as the reason for recitation of other pesukim.

We have shown untrue that "the translation bears no relation the extant Arabic at all".  But why did the translator introduce Rabbeinu Avraham's explanation one paragraph early if it was not in the original text?

The answer is clear if you compare the text of the Midrash as quoted in the Hebrew version and Arabic versions as we see here:

The Hebrew version omits the clause “If not, let him study the Torah. For it is written: 'Commune with your own heart'. If he subdues it, well and good.” As a result, it is likely the translator considered Rabbeinu Avraham’s discussion of the recitation of pesukim as part of his discussion of the recitation of Shema.  Thus is further reinforced by the following:

The Hebrew translation omits the segue “If this is enough, otherwise…” between the discussion of the recitation of pesukim from the recitation of the Shema.  The translator understood Rabbeinu Avraham's discussion of pesukim and Shema to be a single unit since his version of the Midrash did not have an independent clause referring to the recitation of pesukim.  As a result, there was no transposition at all in the translation.

The Purpose of the Translation

Besides the accuracy of the translation, Rabbi Meiselman notes two aspects of the Discourse  which indicate “translator’s goal was not to preserve a faithful copy of the Ma’amar for posterity, but to draw support from it for his own thesis.”

In my humble opinion, discerning the intent of the translator is close to irrelevant for our purposes.  We have direct access to the Arabic versions of portions of the Discourse, we can judged directly for ourselves the competence of the translator.  Since the translation is accurate for the significant fraction of the Arabic text that we have, we can have confidence in the translation.  Nevertheless, we'll address the evidence that Rabbi Meiselman brings and show that they do not bear any relevance to the issue.

His first piece of evidence for this is the fact that the translation of the Discourse is introduced by the following introduction (Rabbi Meiselman’s translation TCS pg 91):
I have found written by HaRav Rabbeinu Avraham Ben HaRav Rabbeinu Moshe ztz”l is a sefer he composed in the Arabic language called al-Kafiyah, the following words which contain great benefit  for my needs, and translating them from his language into the Holy Tongue is fitting for me and proper.
In the one manuscript of the Discourse, there is an even longer prologue which contains a possible reference to a larger work by the prologue’s author: “And this principle and its ramifications will be explained thoroughly in the second chapter”.  (As Rabbi Meiselman notes, this prologue may not have been written by the translator as it is omitted from a different manuscript).

To begin with, if it is true that the translator intended the translation be incorporated into a larger work (and this may not be the case), it would not indicate that the translation is somehow deficient.  Rabbi Meiselman includes the Discourse in his own work in order to support his thesis, but it is for this very reason that he treats the Discourse with painstaking care.

Next, Rabbi Meiselman then notes that the sources quoted in the Arabic are abridged in the Hebrew version, sometimes by hundreds of words.  He states that “[t]his makes perfect sense if the translator’s goal was not to preserve a faithful copy of the Ma’amar for posterity, but to draw support for it from his own thesis”.  In my humble opinion, this is a complete non sequitur.

To begin with, all of the shortened references are in Hebrew and not in Arabic.  The inclusion of the full text of these references would not serve to preserve the Arabic for the Hebrew reader in any way. They would be simply an exercise in tedious copying while adding nothing to the store of the world’s knowledge.

Secondly, in the age before the printing press, it is not at all clear that making the translation longer would serve to “preserve a faithful copy of the Ma’amar”.  The shorter the work, the more likely it could be copied further and spread to a wider audience.

Thirdly, it is quite traditional to abridge sources in religious works.  The Talmud itself abridges pesukim all the time with the assumption that the reader knows what is being referred to.  The Vilna Gaon's commentary on the Shulchan Aruch often consists of a string of references to the Talmud or Rishonim with no other explanation.  In the religious context, the translator would then have no reason not to abridge sources to save costs as well as to make his translation more compact and easier to copy.

Finally, as Rabbi Meiselman notes, the different manuscripts abridge the sources differently.  Thus, it is not even clear that it was the translator who did the abridgment.   (Ironically, Rabbi Meiselman himself reports in the preface of TCS (pg. xxii) that he was forced by his publisher to abridge sources in order to make the length of his book practical).

At this point, we've shown that there is no evidence to question the reliability of the Hebrew translation of the Discourse.  We'll now turn to placing the Discourse into a modern context.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] The full text of the Discourse that we have today is known to us only in Hebrew translation. The Discourse was first published in 1836 in the journal Keren Chemed and eventually included in 1887 Vilna edition of Ein Yaakov based on a manuscript currently housed in the Oxford Bodleian Library (TCS pg. 94). Two other manuscripts also exist, one of which is unreliable as it contains obvious changes, as well as an attempt by its “author” Eliezer Eilburg to attribute part of the Discourse to himself. (TCS pg. 95). However, it is clear that this manuscript was derived from the Oxford manuscript so we can rule out the possibility that Eilburg had inserted the section which references Chazal’s scientific statements. (TCS pg 95 note 264).

In addition to the Hebrew translations, a version of the Discourse in Arabic (approximately the middle third) was found in the Cairo Geniza. In the appendices of TCS, Rabbi Meiselman has published a version of the Hebrew text which utilizes all three manuscripts as well the publication of Discourse in Kovetz Teshuvos HaRambam. TCS also includes a publication of the Arabic text, along with a new translation by Rabbi Yaakov Wincelberg with editing by Rabbi Pinchas Korach and with a comparison to the Hebrew Translation.

Finally, Rabbi Meiselman also publishes a Synopsis of the Discourse by Rav Vidal HaTzorfati (1540-1619) which mentions the 5 categories of Derashot and 4 categories of stories, but not the section of the discourse which discussed Chazal’s statements on science.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Guest Post: Rabbeinu Avraham vs. Rabbeinu Avraham?

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view -- that Chazal’s knowledge of the natural world was not derived from the Torah.” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, TCS, pg 90.

Rabbeinu Avraham vs. Rabbeinu Avraham?

We showed in our last post that the Discourse is firmly rooted in the tradition of the Rambam, as Rabbeinu Avraham himself points out.   However, in TCS, Rabbi Meiselman argues that the Discourse contradicts the views of Rabbeinu Avraham himself as published elsewhere.  We'll examine this argument now.

Where does this contradiction reside?  Rabbi Meiselman points out [1] that Rabbeinu Avraham's Kifayat al-Abidin (or The Guide to Serving God) [2] discusses the relationship between the wisdom of the Gentile sages and that of the Jewish Sages. Rabbeinu Avraham explains that the Gentile sages reached a deep understanding of the world including an understanding of God as the first cause of the Universe.  However, they came to the mistaken conclusion that God does not exert any Providence over the universe.

In contrast, the Jewish sages had an advantage over the Gentile sages. [2a] In the words of Rabbeinu Avraham "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers". The Torah gave knowledge of God's Providence and involvement in this world to the Jewish sages; this knowledge was unavailable to the Gentile sages. [3]  It is Rabbi Meiselman's claim that these words contradict the message of the Discourse.  How so?

What Rabbeinu Avraham means, according to Rabbi Meiselman's opinion, is that the God gave over a complete understanding of the natural world, including all the knowledge attained by the Gentile sages, to the Jewish sages through the Torah.  In addition, the Jewish sages also received knowledge of providence.  Thus, Chazal's knowledge of the natural world, derived from the Torah, is more reliable than that of the Gentile sages and any disagreements must be settled in favor of the Jewish sages.  In Rabbi Meieselman's words
The most natural interpretation of the phrase in italics [quoted above] seems to be that Chazal derived from the Torah everything known to the non-Jewish scholars, plus additional wisdom not possessed by them. It follows from this that whenever there is disagreement between the two forms of wisdom, Chazal’s must be presumed superior because of its divine source. [...]   Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view -- that Chazal’s knowledge of the natural world was not derived from the Torah. They build their case upon a passage appearing in the published edition of his [Discourse.]
Thus Rabbi Meiselman argues that Discourse is an outlier in Rabbeinu Avraham’s own thought as expressed in Kifayat al-Abidin.

In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman’s argument fails in a numbers of ways.  The simplest refutation is supplied by Rabbi Meiselman himself.  Rabbi Meiselman admits that it is possible to interpret the statement from Kifayat al-Abidin in a way that doesn’t contradict the Discourse [4].  Since both were written by Rabbeinu Avraham (and in fact the Discourse was likely to have originally been a part of Kifayat al-Abidin), an interpretation which doesn't result in contradiction is to be preferred over one that results in a contradiction. [4a]

Moreover, Rabbi Meiselman's preferred interpretation is quite forced.  In order to evaluate his interpretation, we need to take a longer look at what Rabbeinu Avraham was writing about.

The context of the Rabbeinu Avraham's discussion is a classic question in Judaism's approach toward Bitachon (faith).   If God is both Omniscient and Omnipotent, then of what value is human activity towards a goal?  Isn't God in control anyhow?

In this context, Rabbeinu Avraham describes three classes of people:

1) Uncultured people who don't bother to investigate how the world works.  These people are little raised above the level of animals.

2) The wise, who study how the world operates through cause and effect. Through this understanding, they may come to discover the First Cause (God), but they believe that God's contribution is to solely keep the universe going according to natural law.  Thus, they deny God's Providence and fail to reach to the highest level of understanding.

3) The pious and wise followers of the Torah who understand that the world operates via a system of cause and effect and understand the details of this system as well as the previous class.  However they also understand that these causes are secondary to God who is the first cause, and who can choose to continue the natural order or to alter it at will.

Rabbeinu Avraham also describes an (unnumbered) fourth class of people.  These are religious people who have discovered God's existence through reason or tradition, but commit an intellectual error.  Because of their belief in God and his control of the universe, they deny the importance of the study of natural cause and effect.  They feel that this study would lead them into denial of God's Providence.  These people are little better that those in the first class.

The following table summarizes Rabbeinu Avraham's classification system.

Ignorant of Science Understands Science
Denies ProvidenceThe uncultured and ignorant. Little above animals.Philosophers who study nature and understand cause and effect. May believe in a First Cause (God), but lack in their understanding due to a denial of Providence. Nature always proceeds with regularity.
Admits of ProvidenceReligious people who reject the study of nature. Little better than the ignorant.The religious wise. Study nature and cause and effect as the philosophers do, but also understand that God can choose to exercise his Providence to interrupt the usual flow of natural law.

If the wise admit of both natural cause and effect, and Providence, what is the proper way to approach the topic of  Bitachon?  At the simplest level, one should follow the path of our forefathers (Avos) who pursued practical solutions to their problems, but also realized that their fate was tied to God's will and his ability to perform miracles on their behalf.

We can now return to our original question:  What did Rabbeinu Avraham mean when he wrote: "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers"?  Rabbi Meiselman claims that it indicates that "Chazal derived from the Torah everything known to the non-Jewish scholars, plus additional wisdom not possessed by them."

In my humble opinion, this is untenable for a very simple reason.  Rabbeinu Avraham is not speaking about Chazal!  He is talking about people in every generation including both his own and future generations.  The people in the third class are the practical model for proper behavior and understanding.

It goes without saying that we acquire our knowledge of science from experiment and by reading the works of scientists and not from Torah study.  The Rambam is explicit that Chazal's knowledge of astronomy needed to fulfill the Mitzvah to calculate the time of the sighting of the new moon was lost to us, so that he restored it from other secular sources. [4b]  He writes similarly in the Guide for the Perplexed  [4c].  Rabbi Meiselman admits that the Rishonim and Acharonim could err in science and that we can recognize their errors. [4d].

While this is enough to disprove Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation, there is further evidence from Rabbeinu Avraham himself.  In writing of  those followers of the Torah who remain willfully ignorant of science as contrary to the Torah he writes:
And because of this, matters of nature were hidden from them and they came to the denial of things whose truth intellect affirms and even the senses are cognizant of them [the truths of nature] ... and this way they came to be objects of ridicule to men of understanding.
According to Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation, the main problem with this class of people is not that they deny that which the intellect affirms.  Rather, they deny that which the Torah affirms!  Moreover, Rabbeinu Avraham's criticism becomes insensible since their view is that the Torah guides them to avoid the study of cause and effect; thus, it would be incumbent upon them to ignore their own intellects, since the Torah "must be presumed superior because of its divine source."

In addition, the plain language of Rabbeinu Avraham simply provides no support for Rabbi Meiselman's interpretation.  Rabbeinu Avraham simply says that the Torah reveals God's Providence to the wise.  He never says that it reveals natural law.  The quotation "But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers" is only part of the sentence; it is immediately followed by the following:
giving them indications and proofs of that which the philosophers denied regarding His knowledge of particular things, His observance of the circumstances of human beings and his special Providence.
Rabbeinu Avraham tells us what additional matters the Torah teaches and he doesn't say that it is science. [6]

In our next post, we'll return to a direct study of text of the Discourse and Rabbi Meiselman's arguments that some portions of the Discourse are either interpolations or errors on the part the translator.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged. I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] TCS pg 89-90

[2] Rabbeinu Avraham authored two major works, one a biblical commentary, and the other Kifayat al-Abidin, or The Guide to Serving God.

[2a] Actually, while this is Rabbi Meiselman's summary, this is slightly misleading.  See note 6 below.

[3] "People can be divided into three groups. [...] The second groups consists of those possessed of insight, understanding, depth of thought and contemplativeness, who have delved into the various wisdoms and arrived at an understanding of the impetuses and causal factors of each and every phenomenon. Some of them even attained an understanding of the Cause of Causes [God] [...] these are the non-religious scholars and savants, such as the Greek philosophers and their followers. Even those individuals, however, were incapable of understanding the truth in its entirety, but came to the conclusion that God, may he be exalted, never alters any natural process, nor does introduce any cause from outside of the causal nexus [...]. By contrast, observers of religion, who understand the principle of the Torah, contemplate the secondary [i.e. natural] causes and reflect upon them in the same manner as the second group, comprised of the enlightened and scholars of nature, and do not fall short of them in attainment. On the contrary! They understand what the scholars of nature do and receive their respect and honor. But God has informed them through His Torah of that which is beyond the understanding of the scholars and philosophers, giving them indications and proofs of that which the philosophers denied regarding His knowledge of particular things, His observance of the circumstances of human beings and his special providence." (Kifayat al-Abidin 4:8; translation and emphasis Rabbi Meiselman's).

[4] "The wording is ambiguous however, and other readings are possible. Once could argue, for instance, that they received from the Torah only their awareness of hashgachah pratis -- Divine Providence -- while their knowledge of “secondary causes” was obtained from other sources.  Consequently, this passage cannot serve as a conclusive proof to his views on this matter." (TCS pg 90)

[4a] The alternative is an exercise in circular reasoning.  One proffers an explanation of Rabbeinu Avraham which aligns with a given thesis.  Therefore the other statements of Rabbeinu Avraham which don't align with the thesis are questionable authenticity.   One arrives at the conclusion that Rabbeinu Avraham agrees with the given thesis via the assumption that Rabbeinu Avraham agrees with the given thesis.

[4b] "The rationales for all these calculations, and the reasons why this number is added, and why that subtraction is made, and how all these concepts are known, and the proofs for each of these principles are [the subject] of the wisdom of astronomy and geometry, concerning which the Greeks wrote many books.

"These texts are presently in the hands of the sages. The texts written by the Sages of Israel in the age of the prophets from the tribe of Yissachar have not been transmitted to us. Nevertheless, since these concepts can be proven in an unshakable manner, leaving no room for question, the identity of the author, be he a prophet or a gentile, is of no concern. For a matter whose rationale has been revealed and has proven truthful in an unshakable manner, we do not rely on [the personal authority of] the individual who made these statements or taught these concepts, but on the proofs he presented and the reasons he made known." (Kiddush HaChodesh 17:24)

[4c] "KNOW that many branches of science relating to the correct solution of these problems, were once cultivated by our forefathers, but were in the course of time neglected, especially in consequence of the tyranny which barbarous nations exercised over us. ... The natural effect of this practice was that our nation lost the knowledge of those important disciplines." (Guide 1:71)

[4d] [The Rishonim and Achronim who follow the geocentric model] were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them. ... If the interpreters of Chazal held erroneous beliefs, it does not follow at all that Chazal did as well. (TCS pg. 147)

[5] It is unclear what Rabbi Meiselman means by the clause “Some contemporary authors have in fact ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham precisely the opposite view”. This view is not ascribed to Rabbeinu Avraham, but is explicit in the text of the Discourse. The phrase “some contemporary authors” is likewise ambiguous. Rabbi Meiselman does points out (TCS pg. 101) Rav Isaac Herzog quotes the Discourse to show the science of the Talmud is not religiously authoritative. However, It seems unlikely that Rabbi Meiselman would refer to Rav Herzog as an anonymous contemporary author, so this phrase remains obscure.

[6] We can add that the quotation of Rabbeinu Avraham in TCS (see note 3) is slightly misleading.  In TCS, the words, "By contrast" appear to be referring to to the contrast between the Jewish sages and the philosophers.  They actually refer to the contrast between the Jewish sages and the religious Jews who reject the study of science.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Guest Post: Placing Rabbeinu Avraham's Discourse in Context

Copyright 2015 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved

If the style of the parable is applied to the words of the prophets, how much more then should this style be applied to the words of the sages which cannot be understood in any other way? And concerning this, my father, my teacher, blessed be his memory, has long ago called attention to this particular fact in his "Commentary on the Mishnah." -- Rabbeinu Avraham Ben HaRambam in Discourse on the Sayings of the Rabbis

Placing the Discourse in Context

It is easy to place Rabbeinu Avraham's Discourse in context because, for the most part, he does the work for us.  In the quotation above, he tells us explicitly that his approach is based on that of the Rambam in his introduction to the Perek Chelek in his Commentary on the Mishnah.  Here the Rambam introduces what was once a controversial idea: the references to the Olam Habah (the world to come) in the Talmud are distinct from the references to the Tchias HaMeisim (the resurrection of the dead). The consequence of a life properly led is the continued eternal existence of a person’s non-physical soul after its separation from the physical body.

Why was the Rambam’s idea controversial? There are two basic reasons. The first is that if the Olam Habah is the ultimate destination for the virtuous soul, then of what value is Tchias HaMeisim? This led some to question his belief in Tchias HaMeisim despite its inclusion in his list of 13 principles of faith. But the more direct reason for controversy is that the Rambam’s interpretation conflicts with the straightforward meaning of the Talmud: Olam Habah and Tchias HaMeisim are identical and the reward for a good life is revival from the dead and eternal life on earth after the coming of the Mashiach. [1]

The Rambam objects to this identification, because sending the soul to an earthly, physical reward would be like sending a king back to play ball in the street. Rather, the reward is the greater level of understanding of God and his creations achieved by the soul after its separation from the body. But how to deal with the Talmud?

In order to explain this, the Rambam launches into what at first glance appears to be a tangent. He classifies people into three categories based on their approaches to the words of Chazal.
  1. Those who take all statements of Chazal at face values no matter how fantastic. If the Gentiles understood the beliefs of these people, they would judge the Jewish people to be a foolish nation.
  2. Those who take the statements of Chazal at face value and deride and mock Chazal for their apparent foolishness.
  3. Those who understand that the statements of Chazal have both a plain meaning and a secret meaning.  When they spoke of impossible events they were actually conveying ideas by way of riddle and parable.
This approach explains the Rambam's apparent conflict with the Talmud.  The true identification of the world to come was not revealed to the masses because they might not be on the level to accept that Mitzvos are not done for an earthly reward.  It is better that they be done for a reward than not done at all.  So Chazal's statements about the world to come have a plain meaning for the masses and an esoteric meaning intended for those who can accept it.

The explanation of the Rambam here is the basis for Rabbeinu Avraham’s approach in the Discourse. The Rambam places a very high value on avoiding any interpretation of the words of Chazal which conflict with our basic understanding of the world. [2]   This places in context of most of Rabbeinu Avraham’s statements about the Derashot and stories of Chazal. 

But Rabbeinu Avraham adds another category: scientific and medical statements of Chazal that are outside the context of Torah and that are actually false.   Are these a new category not contemplated by the Rambam?

Rambam on the Science and Medicine of Chazal

In fact, Rabbeinu Avraham indicates that his approach to the science of the Talmud is rooted in the Rambam's Guide for the Perplexed. [3]  In the Guide, the Rambam explains that the heavenly spheres are silent.  In stating this, he sides with Aristotle over Chazal who maintain that the spheres produce sounds.

Clearly then, the Rambam does not treat the science of Chazal as received truth. More generally, he states that "speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof." [4]  Elsewhere in the Guide, the Rambam confirms explicitly that Chazal's statements "were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science." [5]

The Rambam is perhaps even more expansive in his Letter on Astrology.    Here, the Rambam deals with the following issue: if claims of astrology are completely false, why do we find statements of Chazal that seem to support astrology?  He answers that it not proper to abandon reason in favor of a sage's mistaken statement.  In addition, it possible that the sage intended the statement as a parable or had some ulterior motive.  The bottom line is that "[a] man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back." [6]

What about the many accurate scientific dicta of Chazal?  Unsurprisingly, both Rabbeinu Avraham [7] and the Rambam [8] both emphasize that credit be given when Chazal's opinions are upheld by investigation.

The following table summarizes the parallel passages on this topic that can be found in the writings of the Rambam and Rabbeinu Avraham:

Rabbeinu Avraham Rambam
Know that it is your duty to understand that whoever propounds a certain theory or idea and expects that theory or idea to be accepted merely out of respect for the author without proving its truth and reasonableness pursues a wrong method prohibited by both the Torah and human intelligence.For speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof./Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden.
Although it is true that in so far as knowledge of our Torah is concerned, we must Believe the sages arrived at the highest stage of knowledge, as it is said (Deu. 17, 11.) In accordance with the instructions which they may instruct thee, etc., still it is not necessarily so concerning any other branch of knowledge. Their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.

[W]hat the sages - blessed be their memories ! said, "When thou art hungry, eat ; if thou art thirsty, drink ; if thy dish is ripe, pour it out while it is hot," is undoubtedly true, because that theory is the main key to human health ; it has been proved by many physicians as well as by physical tests, that a man should not eat untill he is hungry, nor should he drink untill he is thirsty ; and when he feels the need of relieving himself, he ought not to delay such action.

But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.

These quotations from the Rambam place the approach of the Discourse firmly in the Rambam’s own tradition, as one would expect from a work of Rabbeinu Avraham.  Neverthless, Rabbi Meisleman argues that the Discourse is a departure from the writings Rabbeinu Avraham himself in his work Kifayat al-Abidin.  We'll take up this issue in our next post.

Comments are both welcome and encouraged.  I'll make every effort to address any questions or arguments posted in the comments.


[1] For example, the first Mishnah in Perek Chelek (Sandhedrin 90a) states the following:

GEMARA. And why such [severity]? — A Tanna taught: Since he denied the resurrection of the dead, therefore he shall not share in that resurrection, for in all the measures [of punishment or reward] taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, the Divine act befits the [human] deed.
Here the Gemara explains that reason that one who denies that the resurrection of the dead is a principle of the Torah has no portion in the world to come. The reason is as follows: since he denies the resurrection, he will not partake in it (Middah K’neged Middah). This implies that the resurrection and the world to come are identical. For an example of an authority who opposed the Rambam based on the plain meaning of the Talmud, see Rav Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia’s Yad Ramah.

[2] What is striking that the Rambam allows what we could consider to today to be philosophical speculation about the nature of reward and punishment and the eternity of the soul to override the straightforward reading of the Talmud.

[3] “In matters such as these [medical, scientific, and astronomical], on should not evaluate statements based on their authors greatness in wisdom, but from the proofs that they supply. My father wrote similarly in the Guide to the Perplexed.”

[4] "It is one of the ancient beliefs, both among the philosophers and other people, that the motions of the spheres produced mighty and fearful sounds. [...] This belief is also widespread in our nation. Thus our Sages describe the greatness of the sound produced by the sun in the daily circuit in its orbit. [...] Aristotle, however, rejects this, and holds that they produce no sounds. [...] You must not find it strange that Aristotle differs here from the opinion of our Sages. The theory of the music of the spheres is connected with the theory of the motion of the stars in a fixed sphere, and our Sages have, in this astronomical question, abandoned their own theory in favour of the theory of others. Thus, it is distinctly stated, "The wise men of other nations have defeated the wise men of Israel." It is quite right that our Sages have abandoned their own theory: for speculative matters every one treats according to the results of his own study, and every one accepts that which appears to him established by proof." (Guide 2:8).

[5] “You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science.”  (Guide 3:14)

[6] "What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers [astrologers] is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide.) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back..." Letter on Astrology

[7] "We infer from this that they did not arrive at the true ultimate conclusion of everything outside of the Torah. [...] However, thou shalt take note that this rule has some exceptions and therefore, what the sages - blessed be their memories!, said, "When thou art hungry, eat ; if thou art thirsty, drink; if thy dish is ripe, pour it out while it is hot," is undoubtedly true, because that theory is the main key to human health."  (Discourse)

[8] "But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so."  (Guide 3:14)

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