Sunday, August 9, 2020

Torah & Dogmatism

"Torah & Rationalism" (Feldheim 2020) is the title of a new book consisting of collected writings of Rabbi Dr. Aaron Chaim Zimmerman z"l, compiled by his student Michael Landy. Given its title, it naturally would seem to be of interested to readers of this forum, and several people have asked for my opinion of it. According to the book's blurb, "for the Torah Jew, this book will intellectually secure his mind by demonstrating the structure of Torah and Halachah in a rational way." I was given a copy to review and I was intrigued to read it.

Rav Zimmerman was renowned as an extraordinary prodigy, fluent in the entire Bavli, Yerushalmi, Rishonim and Acharonim, in the Brisker tradition. He served as Rosh Yeshivah at HTC in Chicago, as well as at other yeshivos in New York and Jerusalem. At the same time, he was a highly unusual rosh yeshiva. At one point during his illustrious career, he was clean-shaven, wore plaid shirts and drove a convertible! Great geniuses are often eccentric. Alas, in this case, the eccentricities carry forward into a deeply flawed work.

The book's various chapters discuss topics such as the nature of Torah She-ba'al Peh, Kabbalah, Rambam and Moreh Nevuchim, and "the falsity of academic Jewish scholarship." The fundamental problems in this book are ones that I have seen with certain other great geniuses and their devotees, notably Rav Moshe Shapira. Many people naively believe that if a great genius, and especially a great Talmudist, says something, then it must be true. But this is not the case. Genius has nothing to do with being correct; it just means that one is better able to devise arguments in support of rationalizing one's approach.

The first problem is the author's belief in an extreme (and very non-rationalist) interpretation of yeridat hadorot. He insists that as one goes back in the generations, people were actually more intelligent, and that as the generations continue to advance, people are intellectually regressing - not only with Jews, but also with non-Jews (pp. 27-28). One can only wonder what the world will look like in a few centuries - will our descendants be cavemen? But his claim that the genius of Aristotle's was never matched in a later generation, and nor that of Newton or Einstein, is simply wrong. After all, Einstein was as great a genius as Aristotle!

Following from this errant belief is the conviction that expounding extraordinary expositions on a text means that the text's author put those meanings into it, as opposed to the meaning being created by the reader. People such as R. Moshe Shapira and R. Zimmerman believe that the depth is being discovered, whereas in fact it is being created. Thus, R. Zimmerman claims that R. Chaim Brisker's intricate resolutions of contradictions in the Mishneh Torah bring to light Rambam's incredible genius. Whereas the fact is that there is nothing remotely resembling Reb Chaim's types of arguments in any of Rambam's writings (or, for that matter, in the writings of pretty much anyone preceding Reb Chaim.) Furthermore, when Rambam himself was asked about such contradictions, he didn't employ Brisker-style distinctions; instead he simply said that he erred, or changed his mind, etc. Finally, no less than the Chazon Ish states regarding some of R. Chaim Brisker's ingenious expositions that they are simply entirely baseless.

Another flaw which runs throughout R. Zimmerman's work is the religious conviction that no great Torah scholar was ever subject to any influence other than pure Torah. "It is impossible for them to define any aspect of Halachah according to public opinion, political outlook, social environment, or any other influence." Astonishingly, he even makes this claim about Rambam. R. Zimmerman states (pp. 98, 103. 110) that Rambam was not in the slightest way influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy and that he gave it no significance whatsoever; instead, he merely incorporated such ideas in his work as parables to convey classical ideas from Sinai and the Sages in a form that would appeal to his readership. I could argue at length why this is utterly mistaken, but instead I will just point out that none other than the Vilna Gaon explicitly acknowledged that Rambam was influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy in developing some of his views that were contrary to Chazal.

Yet another problem with R. Zimmerman's book, repeatedly illustrated, is the attitude that if a great Talmudist (such as himself) makes a very forceful claim, simultaneously disparaging those who disagree as being ignorant fools, then it carries great weight. This is something that crops up in the book again and again, to an almost unbelievable degree. On p. 25 he describes academic Judaic scholars as "lazy," "narrow-minded," with an "intent to disparage," and who only impress the "ignorant." Such statements carry on throughout the work, and vastly exceed any substantive arguments to back up these claims.

In general, the book is rife with extreme claims, forcefully stated, that are not only not backed up, but are actually contradicted by factual evidence. For example, on p. 94, as part of his efforts to dismiss Gershom Scholem as "a man absolutely ignorant in Torah, Halachah, Jewish thought, and philosophical understanding," he claims that kabbalists are wholly different from non-Jewish mystics, which is why "the whole genuine Torah world asserted immediately that Shabtai Tzvi was a charlatan." Alas, this is absolutely not the case - there were several renowned Torah scholars who were taken in by Shabtai Tzvi.

Its title notwithstanding, "Torah & Rationalism" is in fact a forceful polemic for the non-rationalist approach. Alas, I cannot recommend it.

74 comments:

  1. "I will just point out that none other than the Vilna Gaon explicitly acknowledged that Rambam was influenced by Greco-Islamic philosophy in developing some of his views that were contrary to Chazal." -- I consider myself to be pretty ignorant in Jewish studies, but even I knew that. I can only imagine that Rabbi Zimmerman *had* to have known that.

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    1. Dear Sedgwick:
      Indeed, your question is to the point. Unfortunately, the attributed quote to the Vilna Gaon zt”l as to “Greco-Islamic philosophy” influence on the words of the Rambam is a misunderstanding. The Vilna Gaon zt”l (ביאור הגר"א יורה דעה סימן קע"ט) does not mention the words “Greco” or “Islam.” The Gaon of Vilna only uses the word “philosophy.” Prior to the 19th century the term "philosophy" included all intellectual investigations including physics and other empirical sciences (as can be seen in the title of Newton’s book on math and physics: Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy]). It was only from the beginning of the 19th century that the term philosophy (as used today) was differentiated from other terms representing empirical sciences. In the 18th century, when the Gaon of Vilna zt”l writes that the Rambam was drawn after philosophy, he means: the Rambam’s use of empirical science to understand certain ideas and concepts mentioned in the Talmud. (If one would look in the ביאור הגר"א where the Gaon’s comment is written, he could see there is no connection to Greek or Islamic philosophical concepts.) Therefore, there is no contradiction from the writings of the Vilna Gaon zt”l in ביאור הגר"א, to what the Gaon HaRav Zimmerman zt”l wrote concerning outside philosophical influence in the writings of the Rambam. M Landy

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    2. M Landy:

      You jumped from declaring all intellectual investigations as being included in the term "philosophy", to saying that the Gra means a "use of empirical science". Is math an empirical science?

      And why would the Gra then call it "accursed"? The Gra supported a kind of Torah uMadda, and would study all sorts of knowledge systems to better understand the Torah.

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    3. Aryeh
      In my שלחן ערוך the word "accursed" [הארורה] does not appear.
      (I am aware of the letter from Rabbi Shmuel Luria zt'l printed in the introduction to ספר עליות אליהו.)

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    4. M Landy:

      You may be interested in the censorship history of the word. See https://seforimblog.com/2013/12/the-vilna-gaon-part-1-how-modern-was-he/

      > Stern leaves it as an open question whether the Vilna Gaon called philosophy “accursed” (p. 245). This is obviously an important issue, since if Stern is correct that the Gaon was not really opposed to philosophy, one would not expect him to use the word “accursed.” Yet there is no doubt that the Gaon did indeed use this word. It appears in the first printing of the Gaon’s commentary to the Shulhan Arukh, and its authenticity was attested to by R. Samuel Luria who examined that actual manuscript. Only later was the word removed by the publisher. Contrary to what Stern states, Samuel Joseph Fuenn, Matisyahu Strashun, and Hillel-Noah Maggid Steinschneider do not claim that later editors put in this phrase. The one to make this assertion was R. Zvi Hirsch Katzenellenbogen, and he was hardly a neutral observer.

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  2. Agree with your assessment.

    I found the appendix detailing potential examples of plagiarism, gross errors, exaggeration and misattribution in Ginzberg's commentary on Yerushalmi Berakhot quite interesting. Has anyone tried to look at the data to see if the claims are substantiated?

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  3. I have a copy of Torah & Reason and always found it impressive how R. Ch Z brings in secular philosophers like Kant, Bertrand Russell, Hume, as well as modern day scientists to make his points (often arguing against them), showing vast erudition beyond the confines of the Torah world.

    In any event, this sounds similar to the Reason book from 1979. He says the same thing about Scholem there, but not by name, and similarly constantly derides academic scholars ("insiders and outsiders of Torah" is a subtitle of the book and a frequent theme).

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  4. I would draw attention to a few more strange comments in the book. R' Zimmerman writes (p. 84) that "for the people of the Torah, there is an axiom: any part of Kabbalah that contradicts the Halachah by definition is false, and it is abandoned immediately." This is a very bold and far out of the mainstream view, which certainly FOLLOWS halachah over kabbalah but does not declare as FALSE whatever contradicts it.
    He then writes that the Vilna Gaon was "accepted universally as the greatest master of Halachah and Kabbalah in his generation." Did the Hasidim accept that? Did the Sephardim accept that? It's "universally accepted" that the VG was greater than the Chidah?? Or does the universe only extend to the edges of the yeshiva velt?

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  5. Alot of criticism on this blog. Instead of negating anti-rationalism, how about propagating rationalism itself? Ya know, kind of try to live up to the mantra of this blog " exploring the legacy of the rationalist rishonim"??

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    1. Problem is, he has run out of things to write about as far as the legacy of the rationalist rishonim are concerned.

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    2. Can we finally admit that "rationalism" is just insane? People who keep spouting "rationalism" in Judaism are just either the biggest babies in the room or just plain ignorant.

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    3. @********, i completely disagree. Rationlism is a broad subject that includes philosophy, apologetics and plained old divrei Torah.

      @JRR also disagree. Slifkins attitude shouldn't taint rationalism itself.

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  6. Unfortunately we find ourself in a world of extremists on both sides of the argument. I haven't read the book but I believe the truth to lie somewhere in the middle. I find RNS views extreme as they are outside mainstream Judaism, I also find that he takes some views of the Rishonim and blows them out of proportion. At the other side of the argument there are also extremist views who completely fail to agree that some of RNS views are legitimate views to a certain extent.
    As always the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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    1. The truth lies in what is accepted by tradition. Cherry-picking opinions that are not either mainstream nor used are obviously not usable. Quote whatever you want, and pretend to be rational, but because it is a patchwork of what was cherry-picked from the past, you will not get anyone in the mainstream to accept you (and that ego massage seems important to you)

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    2. Only the small minded decide the truth is "somewhere in the middle". Do you know what that would do to the entirery of your RATIONALIST RELIGION?

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    3. We all like to say "somewhere in the middle." And then we all define the middle to mean "where I am"!!

      For example, I feel that saying that all of Torah is a manmade fabrication is an extreme. I also agree that it is apikorsus. I feel that saying that every word in every sefer by every achron was told to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai and only someone who is declared a Great Rabbi can make Big Decisions is more than a little disingenuous and rather fanatical.

      Saying that science is real and the Torah knows it, that Chazal acknowledge that there is an outside world with some value (not necessarily MORAL value but knowledge nonetheless), and that rabbanim and mefarshim over the centuries have ALSO known this, is neither heresy nor fanaticism.

      See? We can do it too.

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    4. On the specific criticism of "tell more Rationalist stuff and stop just complaining about chareidim," I totally see where you are coming from. The problem here is that this book purports to BE rationalist and is otherwise behaving like a Trojan Horse. Therefore, it must be addressed.

      I won't begin to imagine what time constraints RNS has in building a museum/zoo combo thing from a one room enterprise to a brand new facility as well as continuing to write the Encyclopedia, and thus there are not necessarily new posts on rationalist "topics" (though I miss them too). I already own most of the books and have read (almost?) all of the others.

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    5. "I won't begin to imagine what time constraints RNS has in building a museum/zoo combo thing from a one room enterprise to a brand new facility as well as continuing to write the Encyclopedia, and thus there are not necessarily new posts on rationalist "topics" (though I miss them too). "

      THANK YOU!
      I'm glad that someone appreciates my constraints!

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    6. Dear BDA,
      The middlle is not where I am. I am actually at the other side of the spectrum and as a Talmid of R Elyashiv I believe that RNS books had to be banned (for most people). I am trying to be balanced here.

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  7. We come up against this again and again, that they were superior to us in every way, that our knowledge is always declining and the rest. If that were true, then we shouldn't bother writing anything new or inspecting anything they wrote. It's all been said.
    You have to choose your audience carefully. Once, when we were laining Beraishis, we came cross the Rashi that says Adam Harishon had sex with every creature that had been created. I went to one friend, someone who understands where I'm coming from, and said "Of all the things we're supposed to believe, this has to be the silliest one yet." He cracked up laughing. My chavrusah would have wagged his finger at me. I daven in a chassidishe shul,by the way.
    You can see how the rabbanom tried to walk away rom some comentaries, a long tome ago, when they said that if you believe all the medrashim, then you're a child, but if you believe none of them, then you're a heretic. That stand seems to have been forgotten.
    I'm putting together a collection of my own ideas now. Some are in line, some may be controversial.

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    1. we came cross the Rashi that says Adam Harishon had sex with every creature that had been created.

      Well, this is obviously not כפשוטו but means mentally and is a parable. What made you think otherwise?Meforshe Rashi address this.

      Yakov

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    2. One is supposed to take chazel seriously but not literally. Your approach is very immature. You really think that was meant to be literal? You are but a child, and you should be careful for offering opinions in public. This is why talumud study isn't for emotional children.

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    3. One is not a heretic for "disbelieving" a medrash. But you need to understand it in context. And you dont! But making fun of it, something that has been around for 2000 years, is just unacceptable. YOU dont understand it. But do you have to make FUN of it?

      Rationalism means your grandchildren may not want to follow this religion.

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    4. A collection of your own ideas. I wait with bated breath.

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    5. Actually, while the Spanish Rishonim took Midrash non-literally, the French took Midrash literally. With this case in particular, Chizkuni took it literally. See Lawee, Eric. “The Reception of Rashi's ‘Commentary on the Torah’ in Spain: The Case of Adam's Mating with the Animals.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 97, no. 1, 2007, pp. 33–66.

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    6. And see: https://kavvanah.blog/2019/06/27/interview-with-prof-eric-lawee-about-his-new-book-on-rashis-commentary/

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    7. This begs the question, for those rishonim who DID take it literally, why did they not think it rather odd or "disgusting" conceptually to be taught this or to teach it? Obviously the idea of what Adam did, in its literal sense, at that time was just as disgusting as it is to us now, and relations with animals was certainly forbidden by halacha and completely abnormal in society in the times of rishonim. So how did they simply non-squeamishly accept this premise and say yeah, ho hum, that's what the Torah means? Doesn't that strike people as odd and difficult to explain?

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    8. Also, Adam's stature reached from one end of the universe to the other. The Pshat of this and many other Medrashim is that they are surrealistic.

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    9. student v,
      obviously there are no rishonim that take this literally. yes there are some academics who allege otherwise, but that is because they have no messora as to how to read tanach/medrash/rishonim. that is a fancy way of saying that they are ignoramuses, which is one of the points being made by the book under review.

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    10. Anonymous
      "they have no messora as to how to read tanach/medrash/rishonim" i.e., in ways that I don't like.

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    11. People are transposing their own morality on a completely different world. When Adam was created, he was alone, he had no surroundings, not even a wife. He needed a helpmate, and sex is the only way to create a true bond between beings. How was he to know that the rhinocerous is a bad fit for him? How is his attempt to develop a relationship with a cat any different to a man asking a girl out, on the hopes that she will be a good fit for him? If it turns out that they are not, is he a lecherous pig? He needed to take the risk. If we remove ourselves from the knowledge that we currently have, partially based on the experiences of Adam who did the experiment for us, we will see that there would be nothing with the actions of Adam, even if they are to be taken literally.

      Of course, it is entirely possible that it was merely a thought experiment on the part of Adam. And it is also possible that the entire Medrash is an allegory. I am just saying it is hardly the most ridiculous thing that needs explaining.

      Jim in Jersey

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    12. For certain animals it's hard to understand the Medrash literally, apparently the word 'כל' would have to be limited, as per ט"ז in Hilchos R"H.

      The literalist interpretation of the Medrash can be better appreciated from the view of Ibn Ezra that עץ הדעת והוא יוליד תאות המשגל ועל כן כסו האדם ואשתו ערותם. and Ramban that הנה בעת הזאת לא היה בין אדם ואשתו המשגל לתאוה אבל בעת ההולדה יתחברו ויולידו ולכן היו האיברים כלם בעיניהם כפנים והידים ולא יתבוששו בהם, so before עץ הדעת coitus did not have the inappropriateness that it has now. To claim so would be projecting from our world to that one.

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    13. Actually, I'd be interested in Philip's ideas, even if I disagree with them. Regarding Adam, I do not think Adam had sex with animals. And RNS is right that the Rishonim did not take all Midrashim literally. I agree with Maimonides, who said that anyone who rejects midrashim out of hand is a fool, while those who all accept midrashim literally at face value are also fools. Most of them are parables designed to teach people about proper behavior. The early rabbis were very sophisticated and understood the use of parables.

      To Jim: "When Adam was created, he was alone..." That's an assumption. You're assuming that Adam was the first and only male alive. It is entirely possible and is not too far of a stretch to agree with kabbalist, Rabbi Michael Laitman that Adam had a mother and a father like you and me. Furthermore, Gerald Schroeder explains that Ramban (Nachmanides) wrote that Adam was not the first man but the first "kind" of man. In other words, Adam was the first man not because he was created from the earth but rather because he was given a soul, or in kabbalistic terms, a soul was infused within him. Now, I am by no means a mystic, but this view seems to be in harmony with the theory of evolution. It also disregards your statements about morality. For example, if the practice of murder was never acted before and if this person was not told by G-d that murder, like Adam's bestiality, is wrong prior to the act, does it exempt the murderer of his guilt, since he was the experimenter? Yes, we cannot necessarily judge Adam for his wrongs, since he did not know, but this does not mean that the act inherently, as performed by the actor was free from error.

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    14. There's also a sense in which even human marriage has very negative baggage as noted by for instance by a Lithuanian like the Aroch Hashulchan oc 240 following Rambam, let alone in certain extreme Chassidic ideas. Yet a person brings sanctity to it. This could apply to the repulsion we have to the notion that Adam engaged in bestiality. Note also that bestiality was subsequently prohibited as part of the 6 Adamide commandments, but not at this point in time.

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    15. "Note also that bestiality was subsequently prohibited as part of the 6 Adamide commandments, but not at this point in time."

      Are the laws of morality arbitrary? Some say that they are. Others insist otherwise.

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    16. "Anonymous August 10, 2020 at 4:47 AM
      we came cross the Rashi that says Adam Harishon had sex with every creature that had been created.
      Well, this is obviously not כפשוטו but means mentally and is a parable. What made you think otherwise? Meforshe Rashi address this.
      Yakov"

      "Zev August 10, 2020 at 6:14 AM
      One is supposed to take chazel seriously but not literally. Your approach is very immature. You really think that was meant to be literal? You are but a child, and you should be careful for offering opinions in public. This is why talumud study isn't for emotional children."

      "Anonymous August 10, 2020 at 3:43 PM
      student v,
      obviously there are no rishonim that take this literally. yes there are some academics who allege otherwise, but that is because they have no messora as to how to read tanach/medrash/rishonim. that is a fancy way of saying that they are ignoramuses, which is one of the points being made by the book under review."

      ----

      "Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin August 10, 2020 at 7:14 AM
      Actually, while the Spanish Rishonim took Midrash non-literally, the French took Midrash literally. With this case in particular, Chizkuni took it literally."

      ----

      Why not look here (passuk 23) and see for yourself if it's worth being more cautious next time about what's "obviously" "impossible"?
      https://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=14034&st=&pgnum=9

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    17. @TH, I'm wary of pursuing this subject lest it become overly graphic but i offer the following.

      We revere (at least) two schools of thought, the Spanish/Rambam/rationalist school & the French/Tosafist/supernaturalist school. Roughly the first corresponds to uniformitarianism, or that 'the present is the key to the past'. If we'll insist that morals as we know them are inherent (i find that to be a valid and valuable approach) then even before considering bestiality we already find it conflicted with ויהיו שניהם ערומים ולא יתבוששו. And this would give us another reason to follow the authorities who allegorize the episode in the garden. But the other school says that that the present isn't the key to the past WHERE literalism proves (to them) that we're dealing with something extraordinary. Hence we must read it as is & let the chips fall where they may. So for starters Adam is worse off than Robinson Caruso. Not only is he utterly alone now, but he might remain so forever- no spouse and not even a male or female pen pal. There's no such thing as "society". Or "family". There isn't any and as of yet there can't be any. Parthenogenesis isn't an option. Can it be shown that the prohibition against bestiality must already be in effect? Particularly in light of my other comments that a) the concept of lust was then nonexistent and b) even had it been, it could have been like marriage itself, where we bring sanctity to permissible lust.

      We have a Talmudic construct את שהותר אז נאסר עכשיו. In Additionally, the familiar Halachic and social moderation of intimacy as it expresses itself to us could have manifested itself upon the French Literalists' alternate universe of that time.

      Food for thought.

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    18. chaim,

      "Why not look here (passuk 23) and see for yourself if it's worth being more cautious next time about what's "obviously" "impossible"?"

      that is probably a good example of what happens when someone tries to read a rishon without a messora. chizkuni doesn't believe that adam somehow was miraculously able to cohabitate with all of the animals (think of the technical issues of a human trying to cohabitate with a mouse etc.), but rather that it was a metaphor. none the less, even a metaphor of chazal has to make sense (see the famous RMBM re apples of gold wrapped in silver lining), and if adam had rendered all of the animals infertile, it wouldn't work as a metaphor. therefore he states that within the story being used as a metaphor, you would have to assume that the animal were already pregnant.

      such a point would be self evident to anyone with a messorah as to how to read chazal/rishonim, but would be missed by someone who thinks that all you need is to open a book and read.

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    19. When you say "mesorah," what you actually mean is "conditioned/brainwashed by a particular ideological approach, which forces one to reinterpret Rishonim to conform with the ideology."

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    20. @chaim, Yes, I agree. Thank you for adding this learned response.

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    21. Anonymous: and if adam had rendered all of the animals infertile, it wouldn't work as a metaphor.

      We'll have to see if you are correct. You are making a very broad claim about metaphors, that they have to "work". You might end up with a lot of homework, fielding limitless examples of metaphors that apparently don't work, because they apparently don't have to. And that wherever a Rishon expects them to work, it is because he understands the given statement as literal.

      I never thought of it your way and right now i don't recall any particular objection to you, but (HELLO!) does anyone else care to weigh in on this?

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  8. I'm presuming that on the subject of the decline of the generations, he had not read Kellner's book on that subject, nor the sources that do not accept that idea.

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  9. I am not going to agree or disagree with any of your conclusions. However, I reread this statement of yours several times and it makes no sense as an actual argument:

    "But his claim that the genius of Aristotle's was never matched in a later generation, and nor that of Newton or Einstein, is simply wrong. After all, Einstein was as great a genius as Aristotle!"

    I believe that is referred to as Begging the Question.

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    1. Einstein was a genius in one topic, Aristotle was a genius in a number of topics. How could any objective observer consider them equal?
      Einstein may have refuted some of Aristotle's theories and beliefs, but that does not make him a greater genius.

      Jim in Jersey

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    2. Einstein was probably one of the smartest men ever to walk the earth. This, in no way, disparages Aristotle. Aristotle was also an empiricist. He was a genius who influenced much of Maimonidean thought, as well as many others. It is even possible that they may have even been on the same level. Who knows? But to suggest that the ancients were superior to modern thinkers is just ludicrous.

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  10. R' Slifkin, is there a release date for your Rationalism vs. Mysticism?

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  11. I'm a little confused by your arguments here. In a number of them you bring no proof to your words, rather you simply state he was wrong. Why are we to take your word for it? Second, by the time you did get around to bringing proofs, you brought from the Chazon Ish who was a contemporary of his. Regarding the Gra, he clearly argues on the Rambam and Rav Chayim Zimmerman had the right to hold like either one. He wasn't saying that is impossible for a chacham to be influenced, but he held that where one is influenced, it makes it no longer a Torah view.

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    1. I don't have the time, nor see much point, in explaining why I believe that the rationalist approach is correct. The primary goal of this post is to point out that a book which claims to be presenting the rationalist approach is actually presenting the non-rationalist approach.

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  12. "he merely incorporated such ideas in his work as parables to convey classical ideas from Sinai and the Sages in a form that would appeal to his readership"

    His intended readership would have been very, very small if he was appealing to people who thought in terms of Greek philosophy. Indeed, it might have been limited to him alone.

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  13. You speak against those who interpret (eg) Rambam in ways he himself never imagined. I used to think that way too, but I grew away from it. I have come to see that the question isn't so much whether its wrong to say the Rambam consciously thought what R. Chaim said. (Of course he didn't.) The question is whether its wrong for *us* to read R.Chaim's thoughts into the Rambam, merely because the Rambam himself didn't think of it.

    Do you see the difference? The question boils down in some ways to ownership. Does Shakespeare (or his estate) own his works? Or did he bequeath them to the entire world? If we believe that he was not of an age but for all time, then why *shouldn't* we read into it our own insights? Whether the interpretation FITS the words or not is still up for debate, even for men like R. Zimmerman, but offering new interpretations by itself is not wrong.

    This is not a simple matter. It touches upon how one relates to history, and the degree with which men have the power to invest things with sanctity. Reasonable minds can differ on this question, but neither view can be called the "rational" point of view as opposed to the other.

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    1. Of course I know the difference. But R. Zimmerman's whole point is that Rambam DID have all this in mind.

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    2. I see. If so, that's simply a mistake, and I would agree that such a position, assuming you are summarizing it accurately, is irrational. But in most discussions on this issue (including your own, in your post linked above) the issue is not about *if* the author intended them, but whether we *can* read meaning into words that the author intended. Some say that if the author didn't consciously think of X, then any reading that reads X into his words is ipso facto wrong. *That* view is, I have come to see, mistaken.

      DF

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    3. Why isn't it a simple manner? It seems utterly nonsensical to "read" an author not according to his original meaning (to the extent possible). Otherwise, we're not learning the Rambam, just R' Chaim's own thoughts. Then it's not shitas HaRambam but only that of R' Chaim without ANY connection to the Rambam. R' Chaim is essentially writing his own MT, why then bother working with the Rambam's? The only way to make sense of this (barring postmodern nonsense of rereading Shakespeare and the like) is to say the MT was written with ruach hakodesh, in which case the Rambam's personal thoughts aren't dispositive. That is not "rational."

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    4. Shlomo - Once we agree that our new interpretation is not actually what they had in mind, then its perfectly rational to read new meanings into it. Just like you have a subconscious that is aware of things your conscious mind isn't, there may be also be more in something you create than what you intended. Any great work is susceptible to more than one meaning. Of course, the reading still has to actually fit the words. And the suggested reading itself may be irrational. But the concept is not irrational.

      I agree this is a fairly subtle or abstract notion. Years ago I had a much more simplistic way of looking at it, viz, either you intended it or not, and anything else is just mumbo-jumbo. I no longer see it that way.

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    5. Sorry, but I think that's postmodern drivel. Unless you are arguing that the meaning is necessarily *latent* in the Rambam's words without his realizing it, you are forced to argue that since *coincidentally* the Rambam expressed himself in sufficiently ambiguous wording so as to allow a different meaning, that gives the second reading value. That seems like left wing nihilism to me. How about if combining every third letter yielded some great new pshat in the Rambam? That would of course be meaningless - utterly divorced from what the Rambam actually wrote, no matter how nice the coincidental pshat would be. If R' Chaim wants to write his own code, kal hakavod, but please leave the Rambam alone.

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    6. Well, let me try it this way. In Constitutional Law we find Originalists and Expansionists. The former hold the Constitution must only be interpreted in accordance with how the Founding Fathers thought when they drafted it. The Expansionists think the Constitution was intended to govern the country for all time, and we are therefore permitted to read meanings into it that the drafters themselves could not possibly have intended.

      Personally, notwithstanding my view articulated above when it comes to Torah, I am an Originalist when it comes to the US Constitution. [And likewise, many of the Expansionists become minimalist Originalists when it comes to the Bible.] So I dont agree with how they read the Constitution to include things, such as women's suffrage, that Madison et al would never have thought of. But are they *irrational*"?? Or merely wrong?

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    7. Funny - I was going to reach for the same example, to demonstrate *my* point. The ratifiers agreed to follow a set of rules that they laid down; what sense does it make to hold us to rules they never intended? Because RBG decided one day that certain rules "ought" to be included? What does that have to do with what we signed? I don't know about the word "irrational" per se, but it certainly seems nonsensical to me.
      I think in the Rambam's case, when we follow his rulings because of *his* stature and learning (to an extent), it makes no sense to "learn it up" a different way simply because it fits with the words he happened to use. The Tumim says we can do such a thing with the SA's words because, he says, they were written with ruach hakodesh. That would explain doing the same in the Rambam, but it ain't "rational."

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    8. Can I take a shot here?

      A couple of years ago someone solved Fermat's Last Theorem, a math problem that had been hanging around since the 1600s that Fermat (in the 1600s) excitedly claimed he had solved but did not get a chance to commit to paper. This problem was recently solved with modern math, which Fermat could not have known, so he must have had a different solution. However, this modern solution does work. Similarly, Rav Chaim may believe he has found solutions for problems in the Rambam, maybe independent of the Rambam's own solutions, that nevertheless do support the Rambam from within the world of Torah ideas - as far as Rav Chaim can tell.

      So is it Rav Chaim's own Mishna Torah he's making or is he just explaining the Rambam? Or, to put it another way, who's last Theorem is it, Fermat's or the guy who solved it?

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    9. Shlomo - hard to tell, but I think we actually agree, mostly. Yes, the word "irrational" is the kicker. Because I agree with you that it makes no sense to read new meanings into the Constitution, because we know EXACTLY what the Founding Fathers meant. We have an entire record of the debates and discussions. Torah is very different, for many reasons, and I dont see anything wrong with reading things into it that the writer didn't intend.

      Y - interesting example. I think the way to say it is "It's Reb Chaim's Torah within the Rambam". Is it abstract? Yes. Is it irrational? Not at all.

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    10. DF - I wanted to think of it as less within the Rambam and more adjacent to the Rambam. As if Rav Chaim were saying "I see what you wrote in two places, and I agree with that for the following reason". The same way one person might tell another some bit of Torah, and the other would say "You know, that makes sense, because I think it works out well with such-and-such Gemara that I was thinking about". It seems that this avoids Shlomo's problem with post-modernist readings completely, as we are no longer engaging in 'the reader decides what the author's words actually mean' subjectivism. Rav Chaim isn't telling us what the Rambam's reason is, just that he finds that two statements in the Rambam are not in conflict based on his own understanding of Torah, and perhaps the Rambam would even agree to his reasoning. Does that make sense?

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    11. Based on what I just wrote, and looking at what Shlomo first wrote above, I would have to admit that Rav Chaim's words really aren't shitas HaRamban in the technical sense. They are actually shitas Rav Chaim, especially if his conceptualization affects practical halacha in some way. I don't think there is any way around that. He can't divorce himself from his explanations and point at the Rambam and say "Don't blame me, it's his fault!" [You know, so to speak :) ]

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  14. I think many people severely underestimate just how much popular support Shabbetai Tzvi had -- including from esteemed Rabbis. There were many parts of the Jewish world where, in that era, one would have been hard-pressed to find a community that was *not* "Sabbatean" in its outlook.

    I also think people tend to underestimate the external influences on not only Jewish rationalism, but also Jewish mysticism. Neither existed in a bubble.

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  15. And the support continued, even among some gedolim, for more than a century after he died. There continue to be some believers to this day. That's not some flash in the pan.

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  16. "Furthermore, when Rambam himself was asked about such contradictions, he didn't employ Brisker-style distinctions; instead he simply said that he erred, or changed his mind, etc. Finally, no less than the Chazon Ish states regarding some of R. Chaim Brisker's ingenious expositions that they are simply entirely baseless."

    Saying that some of Rav Chaim Brisker's explanations of the Rambam were off the mark does not refute Rav Zimmerman's claim that other solutions given by RCB demonstrate Rambam's genius. In how many places does the Rambam himself deal with contradictions in Mishneh Torah? What percentage of contradictions in the Rambam raised by the rishonim or gedolei hoacharonim do these instances represent? In how many places does the Rambam's solution to the contradiction differ from Rav Chaim Brisker's? What percentage of Rav Chaim's solutions do the Rambam's own solutions contradict? The Chazon Ish does indeed consider some of Rav Chaim's Torah baseless. How do you know he is right? Did he say that he considered all of RCB's Torah baseless? If not, couldn't the remainder be sufficient to illustrate Rav Zimmerman's point?

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    1. You are making a big mistake. The rationalist approach is not to ask all these questions, which would indeed be a more "scientific" way of analyzing what the Rambam's intent was. The rationalist approach is to draw conclusions based on whatever seems to be at first glance. After seeing one or two places where the Rambam said that he erred or changed his mind, that's enough to conclude that in all cases of seeming contradictions, he erred or changed his mind.

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    2. Gary: The point being made is not that the Rambam already addressed all, or most, of the issues R' Chaim raises. The point is that nowhere in all of the places the Rambam discusses questions on his ruling does he employ the type of reasoning that is the hallmark of the Brisker method, i.e., that disputes, or apparent contradictions, can be resolved by taking a step back an analyzing the underlying conceptual structure undergirding the overt discussion. The fact that the Rambam does not talk in these terms is what makes it a questionable proposition to say that those "chilukim" are what was his intent.

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    3. @Yehoshua: This idea that "nowhere in all of the places the Rambam discusses questions on his ruling does he employ the type of reasoning" is a very weak proof. One could equally say "nowhere does the Rambam speak English, therefore he wouldn't agree with anything spoken in English".

      I would agree that the Rambam certainly wouldn't have expressed himself the way R' Chaim did. In fact, I doubt anybody besides for R' Chaim himself would have expressed himself that way (as Rabbi Slifkin mentions). But the same thing could be expressed in many different ways. There's no reason to say that the Rambam wouldn't have held of the underlying reasoning.

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    4. Point taken. How many examples from the Rambam are we dealing with?

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  17. R Slifkin,
    Thanks for another enlightening entry.
    Any thougths on the uber rationalizm of Jose Faur?
    Or the unique rationalism of Yesh. Leibowitz?
    Both seem surprizingly neglected in our corner of jewish thought

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  18. I used to regularly study with Reb Chaim in the early 1980s and greatly enjoyed him as well as his early books. He was certainly unique, eccentric and seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of Chazal.
    That was just a few years ago..... and I haven't really revisited his thought until your article.
    What's your thought on his earlier books? Do you find any more value in them than in this current one?
    P.S. I still hope, once it becomes possible again, to visit the museum.

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    1. At least one is available online.
      http://israel613.com/books/ERETZ_TORAH_LEISRAEL-E.pdf
      The seforim בנין הלכה & אגן הסהר should be on hebrewbooks.org. Several volumes of his Kerem journal are also available online. I'm not sure about אגרא לישרים.

      I found the latest volume less interesting than his earlier "Torah & Existence" & "Torah & Reason". Those volumes are more substantial and cover a wider area of material. Unlike the current volume, the uniqueness-to-stridency ratio is higher.
      (I got both volumes over a decade ago for reasonable prices. The last time I saw one of them available online the price was prohibitive.)

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  19. Great book review. It helped me decide not to get the book. When will your book "mysticism v rationalism" be published? Looking forward to reading it.

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  20. I agree entirely. I will add that I agree with you insomuch that Maimonides completely rejected the notion of the decline of the generations. He wrote in Guide 3:32 that just as children learn to walk, it is so with ideas. He seems to say, and this is controversial, that G-d does not want or need sacrifices but allowed them to continue as a concession for the ignorant masses of the time, for example. Thus, Rambam wrote that since the ancient rabbis relied on the science of their day, they were not free from error in regards to ancient, wrong science. However, they were always correct about legal, halakhic matters. I agree with him.

    In short, Maimonides espoused the view of the principle of gradual development. Science progresses, ideas develop. IQs are always getting higher as people progress. This seems to imply that people are generally more educated than their predecessors. It, therefore, makes no sense to adopt Zimmerman's interpretation of yeridat hadorot.

    For more information, please see Menachem Kellner's book the "Decline of the Generations, and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority."

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  21. @RDNS, I agree with much of what you wrote, how can you hyperbolically state that "...there is nothing remotely resembling Reb Chaim's types of arguments in any of Rambam's writings (or, for that matter, in the writings of pretty much anyone preceding Reb Chaim.)" There are so many examples, it's hard to pick which one to use to illustrate the falsity of the outlandish claim you've made, but how about the famous nekudah haflaah" of the Rambam every single semikha student studying basar b'chalav knows, to cite one? Please, be more responsible in your polemic.

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