Determining What Torah Scholars Mean
Over at Machzikei HaDas, Yirmiahu quotes from a post that I wrote a while back, as follows:
Academic study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages with the aid of examining the context in which they were written. What societal, cultural, intellectual, political factors could have been involved, if any?...If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior.
In case people are not following the link, I want to quote in full the paragraph from which the last phrase was quoted:
Note that I am not passing a value judgment on these different approaches. If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior. But I am not judging which approach is more valuable from other perspectives, such as for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah or for reaching psak. There is a fascinating exchange in the current issue of Hakirah on topic of whether calling a form of study non-historical means that it lacks value.
Yirmiahu finds fault with my position that the academic method is superior for reaching historical truth. He first claims that
the concept that learning Torah l'shma makes a scholar 'great and exalts him above all things' (Avos 6:1, from the Artscroll Siddur)" is exchanged for a view in which their views and opinions can be evaluated with the same suppositions we would use for any other shmo.
I don't know what that Mishnah in Avos has to do with anything. Is Yirmiyah taking it to mean that a Torah scholar becomes immune from the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place? That's quite an inference! The Hebrew phrase is וּמְגַדַּלְתּוֹ וּמְרוֹמַמְתּוֹ עַל כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים - I don't think that this means anything of the sort.
Yirmiahu then claims that
The entire endeavor to "discover" a controversial position in the teachings of a Torah scholar doesn't strike me as reflecting awe of our Sage either.
It's not an attempt to make them controversial, it's an attempt to find out what they really meant. I think that respecting people means trying to ascertain what they really meant, not what would make them look good according to current standards. I know that this is how I would want to be respected! Reinterpreting someone's position to make it acceptable by today's norms does not reflect awe of them in the least; on the contrary, it reflects lack of awe. But I do agree that it is better for enhancing religious stability and inspiration amongst the masses (this is an important point which I will have to write about more at length on another occasion).
Yirmiahu then quotes Rambam:
The Rambam writes "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, Freidlander translation).
This is quite a remarkable incident of quoting something out of context. Let's look at the paragraph in its entirety:
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. 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.
Let's see. Rambam could have claimed that Chazal were always speaking about the pnimiyus, or some other such contrivance, in order to have their words not be contradicted by science. Instead, he said that they sometimes took positions based on the faulty scientific beliefs of their era. So Rambam is doing exactly the opposite of what Yirmiahu is (selectively) quoting him for!
Yirmiahu continues as follows:
While I don't suspect that the Rambam would demand that only a necessary inference should establish that an erroneous position was held, to cull dispersed writings to reveal an non-obvious error (while conceding that theoretically one's entire position could crash down like house of cards by the revelation of a single statement to the contrary) is not in anyway consistent with the Rambam's maxim.
Obviously he is talking about my Rashi article. First of all, I find it amusing that he sees it as a weakness that I conceded that a single clear statement by Rashi against corporeality would destroy my analysis. Actually, I see it as a strength - I am making a clear test for falsifiability. Isn't one of the common creationist charges against evolution that it is non-falsifiable? (Which happens not to be true.)
But Yirmiahu's main point here is that it is disrespectful to Rashi to show him to be a corporealist. Well, either Rashi was or was not a corporealist. If he was not, then I am simply wrong. If he was, then I don't see it as disrespectful to show what a Rishon actually held, for the reasons explained above. I do consider it disrespectful to distort what they held, or to try and cover it up. And how is this inconsistent with Rambam's maxim? Rambam was clearly talking about not negating the significance of true statements; but he most certainly held that Torah scholars absorb the beliefs of their era, even when this has ramifications on Torah beliefs!
But why discuss Rashi's view on this? What is to be gained? This is something that will be made clear in my follow-up article, "They Can Say It, We Cannot," due to appear in the next issue of Hakirah. Aside from understanding pshat in Rashi, I think that discovering that prominent Rishonim held views that are considered heretical today forces us to carefully analyze what the entire notion of heresy means - and I think that there are some interesting and unexpected conclusions. (And please don't try to predict my views, you are almost certainly incorrect!)
Yirmiahu then quotes from Rav Hirsch about how “the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” Of course, Rav Hirsch also held that Chazal accepted the false scientific beliefs of their era, and he also condemned Rambam for being influenced by Greek philosophy - thereby showing that he did not follow Yirmiahu's policy.
Yirmiahu then states:
To apply the principles generally utilized in the humanities to those we view as atypical in their wisdom and piety is to commit the fallacy of Hasty Generalization (or betray that one does not view them as atypical in wisdom and piety)
Now, it is of course true that one should be careful about generalizations. It is certainly not impossible for a person to rise above the societal, cultural, intellectual, and political influences of his time and place, and nor did I ever claim otherwise, contrary to how some might like to falsely portray me. However, these are certainly factors that should be taken into account. Yirmiahu claims that these factors are not relevant, or are significantly less relevant, with Torah scholars, who are "atypical in their wisdom and piety." I believe that they were atypical in their piety, but I'm not sure what piety has to do with this topic. And with regards to wisdom - what does this mean? Intelligence (and if so, which kind of intelligence)? Torah knowledge? Torah values?
This will probably be one of those deep and irreconcilable differences between rationalists and mystics.