Guest Post: Rabbi Meiselman's Thesis [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 2)]
Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
“And I’ve already said to you once that if the sages argue in any Hashkafah or view whose result is not at all practical, then it is not appropriate to say ‘the halacha is like so-and-so’” -- Rambam, Peirush HaMishnayos, Sotah 3:5
“This is how the decision-making process functions in the realm of halacha, and in matters of hashkafah the procedure is no different.” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 624.
In our last post, we examined the Rambam’s position on P’sak in matters that lie outside of the realm of practical Halacha, in accordance with the positions of Rabbi Aryeh Carmell and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. In this post, we’ll examine some objections to our interpretation of the Rambam based on Rabbi Moshe Meiselman’s position recently published book.
Rabbi Meiselman’s Thesis
In his recent book, “Torah, Chazal and Science” (TCS), Rabbi Moshe Meiselman seeks to establish that, contrary to appearances, the Rambam’s exclusions of theoretical matters from P’sak is quite limited. His thesis runs as follows:
1. The Rambam maintains that P’sak is completely appropriate for all matters. For some impractical matters, such P’sak is optional, but never inappropriate. Thus, he writes: “The Rambam remarks in at least fives places that he will not necessarily render decisions on issues with no practical ramifications. [emphasis mine]” (TCS pg. 616). By interpreting the Rambam as saying that he will "not necessarily" render a P'sak, he is saying that P'sak is still relevant, but optional, in cases that don't involve practice.
2. The Rambam mentions in at least 5 different places that that he will not give P’sak because there is no practical impact to the disagreement. Rabbi Meiselman maintains that for three of the five disagreements where the Rambam mentions this, he does in fact “rule definitively” in the Mishneh Torah. Since the Rambam does actually issue a ruling to resolve these disagreements in Mishneh Torah, he must have meant that P'sak was possible, but not required in theoretical matters.
For example, the Rambam mentions in Sefer Hamiztvos, negative commandment 133 that there is an argument as to whether a non-Cohen who eats T’rumah is liable for “death at the hand of heaven” or merely lashes. Since either way the violator is liable for lashes, because those liable for "death at the hand of heaven" also receive lashes, the Rambam references his principle, and refrains from giving P’sak. However in Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Trumos 6:6, the Rambam does “give a ruling,” according to Rabbi Meiselman, that the violator is liable for “death at the hand of heaven”. (TCS, pg 617)
3. The Rambam’s rule would not apply to what Rabbi Meiselman terms “hashkafic questions”, because such questions have practical import. There are practical halachos defining the boundaries of allowable belief and how a person’s beliefs impact the their halachic status. For example, the Rambam maintains (in opposition to other authorities) that a person believing in God’s corporeality is a “Min”. (TCS pg 619-620). Rabbi Meiselman argues that none of the five places where the Rambam mentions explicitly that he will refrain (as Rabbi Meiselman characterizes it) from giving a P’sak is an example of “hashkafa”.
According to Rabbi Meiselman, the Rambam applies the methods of P’sak when he rejects what he (the Rambam) maintains are minority opinions in “hashkafa”. For example, the Rambam rejects the existence of “Yisurin shel ahavah” (afflictions of love) and dismisses the mention of this concept in Talmud as the product of a minority opinion. According to Rabbi Meiselman, the Rambam was rendering a P’sak in the usual fashion, by following the halachic principle of Rov (majority rule). Since he was paskening according to the Rov, he dismissed the minority opinion as he would in any case of halachic P'sak.
Based on these arguments, Rabbi Meiselman concludes that the Rambam maintains that with regard to a question in “Hashkafah”, “the conclusion reached has the same status as any other halachic decision”. (TCS, pg 622).
Rabbi Meiselman’s immediate purpose in establishing his thesis that there is no difference between P’sak in halacha and “hashkafah” is to counter the approaches of modern authorities such as Rabbi Aryeh Carmell to resolving the apparent conflicts between science and the Torah. Rabbi Carmell engaged the issue, in part, by reinterpreting pesukim in light of modern scientific discoveries about the age of the universe. All such interpretations are novel, because pre-modern authorities generally worked with the assumption of a young earth as implied by the plain meaning of Bereishis. Rabbi Carmell leveraged the Rambam’s principle that there is no P’sak in matters outside halacha to give us the freedom to interpret the pesukim in light of the findings of modern science:
Are we bound to the literal meaning of the verse, or is there room for interpretation? No halachah is involved here so in principle the road to reinterpretation should be open. One more element is required: compulsion. As we have seen many times above, we reinterpret only if we see a compelling need to do so” (see “Freedom to Interpret”, pg. 10).
Similarly, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan said the following:
[T]he Rambam says clearly that in questions of hashkafah or history, there is no P’sak. In other words, if an opinion is found in Chazal or in our accepted Torah seforim, one cannot say that we do not posken like that opinion. Thus, the Rambam often takes a daas yachid (the opinion of just one person) and builds an entire hashkafah on it. He may use this opinion because it fits into his system of logic, even though it may be a minority opinion. He can do this, since the entire concept of P’sak only applies to questions of halachah and not to questions of hashkafah.” (see “The Age of the Universe”, pg 5-6).
Rabbi Meiselman strongly disagrees with this approach and seeks to undermine its premises by challenging the notion that there is no P’sak outside of practical halacha. (TCS pg. 615 note 14).
In my humble opinion, Rabbi Meiselman's thesis about the Rambam’s position is difficult to accept. In the next set of posts, we’ll examine in detail the elements of Rabbi Meiselman’s position so that the reader can form a judgement as to its validity.
The views in this post are mine and may not represent the views of the blog owner. I encourage comments and will make every attempt to address any questions in the comments section.