Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Significance of Sources

People often ask if there is a source in Judaism for a given idea, and whether it's in Chazal, a Rishon, or an Acharon. But they frequently don't seem to have given much thought to the nature of the significance of finding sources.

Allow me to explain. There are some legitimate reasons for wanting to know if there is a source for something, and what the antiquity of that source is. As a traditional, religious system, the antiquity of a source is of great significance for its legal authority. The opinion of a Tanna carries greater weight than that of an Amora; the view of an Amora carries greater weight than that of a Rishon; that of a Rishon is of greater weight than the view of an Acharon.

On the other hand, finding an ancient source for something does not necessarily mean that it is of practical halachic significance today. One must also take into account how Judaism develops over time. For example, there is a solitary opinion in the Mishnah that one may make a shofar from a cow's horn. However, since this has been summarily rejected by every authority since then, it is no longer of halachic significance. And elsewhere we have discussed how Talmudic warnings about eating peeled onions were not incorporated into halachah and should not be revived.

Finding a source for a view is also significant for non-halachic matters, insofar as evaluating the extent to which it represents classical, traditional Judaism. For example, while it's hard to conclusively point to any reference to the afterlife in Tanach, there are certainly abundant mentions of it in the Talmud. On the other hand, reincarnation has no mention in either Tanach or Talmud, and some of the earliest sources in the Geonim and Rishonim to discuss it actually reject it.

But the mistake that many people seem to make is to believe that finding a source for something gives it factual physical or metaphysical reality. It doesn't. You can find sources, even ancient sources, for all kinds of weird and wonderful things - from geese growing on trees to Binyamin being a werewolf. Chazal themselves believed in demons, and this did not prevent Rambam and others from rejecting their existence. Sources might define Judaism, but they don't define reality.

17 comments:

  1. Reality? After reading your article on the subject, it seems rational that Binyamin may well have been a werewolf.

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  2. Alternative AngleJune 12, 2018 at 4:36 PM

    "Finding a source for a view is also significant for non-halachic matters, insofar as evaluating the extent to which it represents classical, traditional Judaism. For example, while it's hard to conclusively point to any reference to the afterlife in Tanach, there are certainly abundant mentions of it in the Talmud. On the other hand, reincarnation has no mention in either Tanach or Talmud, and some of the earliest sources in the Geonim and Rishonim to discuss it actually reject it."

    Funny how that works, no? If it was absent in tanach but appears in the gemarah it's "classical," but if it was absent in gemarah but accepted by the zohar, hai gaon, ramban, kisvei ha'ari, gra, and every hasidic rebbe ever, it's superstition. Do you have any formal criteria for when the religion is permitted to change?

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    1. That would be a very logical criteria... The gemara is the first and main collection of sources. It is vast and should cover everything. If something is not mentioned there it is either some huge secret or made up later.
      If reincarnaton is not mentioned there either you have to suppose that it was a secret too big for the tanaim but not too big for rebbes or it was made up. You choose what makes most sense.

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    2. Religion is dynamic thus always changing. If it ever stopped changing and became static it would be dead. God is constantly recreating the world. Religion does not need permission to change.

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    3. Criteria? Sure. If you want to be part if the tradition of Rabbinical Judaism, then you do your best to be loyal and authentic towards what they wrote. And you reject lunacy that wasn't part of their 'world ' (like kabbala).

      The first step is deciding which of God's self appointed interpreters* you are going to follow.


      *that's actually a phrase I found in a Batman Elseworld comic years ago. But it's a very good phrase.

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  3. I was under the assumption that Torah defines reality

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    1. What gave you that impression?

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    2. The Torah says: “I was the tool of G‑d’s artistry.” An architect who builds a palace does not do so on his own; he has scrolls and notebooks which he consults regarding how to place the rooms, where to set the doors. So it was with G‑d: He looked into the Torah and created the world.


      (Midrash Rabbah)

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    3. No, no, you got mixed up; Torah is LIFE. Or maybe Torah IS reality and life. I forget.

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    4. that depends on the semantics.

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  4. So we are to lend credence to the resolution of tannaic halachic disputations but we should reject on a rationalist basis those assertions that are incontrovertibly scientifically bogus, like spontaneous generation.
    I think that you are defining reality on the basis of unfalsifiability, the former being unfalsafiable and the latter scientifically not.
    Why would you have us believe that the stratagems to validate Hillel/Shammai halachic disputes are any more acceptable than those that attempt to promote mud mouse beliefs?
    Perhaps both Hillel and Shammai were wrong? How would you know if they were?

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    1. Deciding law does not require any adherence to physical reality, nor does it require any predictive ability.

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  5. Sources might define Judaism, but they don't define reality.
    Hawking too did not believe that G-d exists and that Judaism defines reality. I wonder what he thinks now.

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    1. @Avi That's the point- now, having met the Creator he may know better.

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  6. I think this all boils down to a point I've made to friends on many occasions. The Torah is a legal system, not a scientific system. As such, there is (and should be) much more emphasis on trying to understand the original intent of the document (in the case of the Torah, how our most ancient sages understood it) and less emphasis on modern theories.

    We can see the same thing in the secular world. Someone trying to understand the US Constitution, or a legal statute or a judicial ruling must learn all he can about what was written by the author(s) and contemporary commentators, because they are in the best position to know the original intent.

    On the other hand, when trying to understand a matter of science, it is far more important to invent (and then try to prove) novel new theories that can explain observations better than the previous generation of theories.

    In science, the past must continuously defend itself and often gets rejected as we learn more. But in law, the exact opposite is (or should be) true - present and new decisions must be defended using the framework of precedent, and old opinions are only discarded after long and hard deliberation.

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