Guest Post: Is there P'sak in "hashkafa"? [Can we "pasken" the age of the universe? (Part 5)]
Copyright 2014 by David Ohsie. All rights reserved
[Note: if you are interested in some further discussion of the last post, please see this supplementary post below.]
“The truth of the matter is that the Rambam’s principle in Peirush HaMishnayos -- that he will not decide issues without practical import -- is not relevant to haskafic questions in the first place” -- Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science, pg 619
In our previous post, we demonstrated that Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis that the Rambam “definitively rules” on non-halachic matters was not well-supported by the evidence, in my humble opinion. In this post, we’ll discuss the next element of Rabbi Meiselman’s thesis: that questions of “hashkafah” lie outside the Rambam’s limitations on P’sak.
Does the Rambam’s principle apply to “hashkafah”?
Rabbi Meiselman further argues that the Rambam’s principle doesn’t apply to “hashkafah”. In support of this thesis, he mentions that none the five example where the Rambam enunciated his principle involve matters of “hashkafah”:
1. On Sotah 3:5, he writes the following: "This issue is whether a sotah (a suspected adulteress) who is in fact guilty, can survive the ordeal of the "bitter waters" on account of some prior merit. Notice that there is no issue of correct belief here; just a practical issue of what happens in such a case." (TCS pg. 615)
2. On Sahhedrin 10:3, which discusses whether or not the members of the Dor Hamidbar merit the world to come: "Here, again, the issue is neither one of historical fact or hashkafah, but of how heaven deals with certain sinners." (TCS pg. 616)
3. On Sefer Hamitzvos Negative 133, which discusses whether a Zar who eats Trumah is liable for "death at the hands of heaven": "Notice that the context is similar to all the other examples we have seen so far. It is a matter of heaven's treatment of a particular type of sinner". (TCS pg. 617)
4. On Maamar Techiyas HaMeisim, which discusses whether Yechezkel's revival of the dry bones (Yechezkel 37:1-14) was a literal resurrection: "Although this example involves no hashkafic issue, it does involve a point of historical fact. Even so, there is no support for Rabbi Kaplan's contention [that there is no P'sak with regard to historical fact or hashkafah]. The Rambam is clear that his refusal to render a decision is based on two factors: (1) that the Chachamim argue and (2) that there are no practical ramifications. The implication is that if there were such ramifications, he would indeed have issued a ruling." (TCS pg. 618 note 29).
5. On the totality of the cases, he comments: “None of the five cases in which he expresses his reluctance to rule involves a matter of hashkafah. Four of the five address how God deals with certain sinners, which is not the sort of question human beings must decide. The fifth involves an ambiguous episode in Tanach, for which Chazal offer several possible interpretations.” (TCS pg. 618)
In my humble opinion, there are a number fundamental, related issues with Rabbi Meiselman's thesis. First, it is unclear how Rabbi Meiselman's two principles interact. If non-haskafic principles can be "optionally" paskened, does this mean that hashkafic principles must "always" be paskened? It is unclear what such a principle would imply; in fact it seems impossible to fathom how to achieve such a requirement. Furthermore, even halachic principles are sometime left undecided. The result is that halachic, non-hashkafic theoretical and hashkafic questions are in fact sometimes decided and sometime left open, but when any of them is decided, it is through P'sak with the legal force of P'sak. In this case, there appears to be no distinction between the categories and the Rambam's principle becomes a nullity.
Second, the line between what is "hashkafah" and what is not is ill-defined. It is unclear why the interpretation of a pasuk about Techiyas HaMeisim is less "hashkafic" than interpretation of pesukim which imply an age of the universe. Would Rabbi Meiselman treat denial of the effectiveness of the Mei Sotah as unimportant because it is not "hashkafic"? The distinction between "historical facts" and the story of Yechezkel is likewise unclear. Rabbi Meiselman remarks that the story of Yechezkel has no practical ramifications, but then neither does the age of the universe. Thus Rabbi Meiselman's reasoning based on the Rambam's examples, even if correct, yields a difficult to understand standard. However, even an ill-defined distinction may still be a distinction, so Rabbi Meiselman's thesis is deserving of further investigation.
The third problem with this proposed exclusion is that the Rambam doesn’t simply give examples of issues where he feels P’sak is not appropriate. If the Rambam had simply given examples, then it might have made sense for Rabbi Meiselman to able draw a compelling line around those examples in order to elucidate the missing principle. But the Rambam does not simply proffer examples; he also explains the principle, and he consistently says that P’sak does not apply to anything which is does not have practical import:
1. He writes with regard to the argument in Sotah 3:5 “אם נחלקו חכמים באיזה השׁקפה ודעה שׁאין תכליתה מעשׂה מן המעשׂים” or “if the sages argue in any ‘hashkafah’ or opinion whose outcome is not a practical matter”.
2. In Sanhedrin 10:3, he writes “אינה תלויה במעשׂה אלא קביעת סברה בלבד” or “if it does not implicate a practical matter but only the establishment of a theory”.
3. In commentary to Shevuos 1:4, he writes “כל סברה מן הסברות שׁאין בה מעשׂה מן המעשׂים” or “any theory among theories which does not contain in it any possible practical impact”.
4. In Sefer Hamitzvos, negative commandment 233 he writes “כל מחלוֹקת שׁלא תחייב הלוף במעשׂה אלא סברא לבד” or “any argument [whose outcome] does not require changing practice, but theory alone”.
5. Finally, in Maamar Techiyas HaMeisim he writes “כל דבר שׁישׁ בוֹ מחלוֹקת ולא יביא למעשׂה” or “any matter that has a dispute which doesn’t lead to practical consequences”.
In each place, he is quite clear that any matter of theory cannot have P’sak applied to it. There is no exception made for matters of “hashkafah” and nowhere does the Rambam delineate any exclusion. Again, this comports well with our explanation of the principle: P'sak decides halacha as a legal matter, but does not reach an indisputable underlying truth and so no distinction is possible. Note also that the translation to #1 explicitly uses the term “hashkafah”. Rabbi Meiselman thus prefers a different translation (TCS pg. 161 note 16), but this matter is really not that important since all translations imply that any matter of theory is exempt from P’sak.
Are “Hashskafic” Principles Practical?
Rabbi Meiselman also advances the theory that Haskafic questions are exempt from the Rambam’s principle because they are “practical”:
The truth of the matter is that the Rambam's principle in Peirush HaMishnayos -- that he will not decide issues without practical import -- is not relevant to hashkafic questions in the first place. Such questions do have practical import, because there are definite halachos about what one is and is not allowed to believe.
It is forbidden to hold certain false beliefs. For example, the Rambam labels a person who believes in God's corporeality a heretic...
Here again, one can ask: if haskafah is practical, then what exactly is the category of theories that are not practical that the Rambam refers to? I believe that Rabbi Meiselman must be referring to a small subset of what we might normally call hashkafah, which involve mandatory beliefs in the fundamental principles of Judaism, including such things as the belief in God.
We are forced into this definition of hashkafah because Rabbi Meiselman's reasoning implies that the definition of "hashkafah" has narrowly defined parameters. It is cannot be that "all" hashkafic questions are subject to P'sak because "some" hashkafic beliefs are practical. Rather, mandated beliefs themselves are halachic and thus have a practical aspect which might be impacted by P'sak. Non-halachic disputes cannot be elevated to mandated halachic status by dint of P'sak itself. That would be circular reasoning and the result would obliterate the Rambam's distinction between practical and impractical matters.
For example, here is a tempting, but fallacious hypothetical line of reasoning: authorities issue a P'sak that that a young earth is a mandatory belief; therefore by their decision, this belief becomes a practical mandate; since we are dealing with a practically mandated belief, the Rambam's principle does not apply and the P'sak has force of halacha. This reasoning is circular, because, by the Rambam's principle, the belief itself cannot be mandated by P'sak. Thus the proposed mandatory belief cannot be rendered practical by P'sak itself and the Rambam's principle cannot be sidestepped through P'sak itself. We would need to show somehow that such a belief is mandated by the Torah in some other way.
Here, I believe Rabbi Meiselman rightly identifies a small zone of "overlap" which requires further elucidation. On the one hand, beliefs are matters of theory or fact which cannot be decided by a halachic process; on the other hand, the Rambam is quite clear that some beliefs are mandated as Mitzvos in the Torah while others beliefs are prohibited by it. In addition, some prohibited beliefs might render a person invalid for testimony and therefore might have undoubtedly practical effects.
Of course, this raises the question of whether or not the matters discussed by Rabbi Kaplan and Rabbi Carmell fit into this definition of Haskafah (mandated beliefs). We'll return to that question later, but first, let's investigate this category of "practical hashkafah".
Does P'sak Decide all Practical Matters?
While the Rambam states that P'sak is inapplicable to non-practical matters, that doesn't mean that the converse is true. The Rambam does not say that in matters that are practical that the methods of P'sak are always applicable. In fact, there is a whole class of practical halachic matters that are not decided by usual methods of P'sak: matters of human health.
Melacha is prohibited on Shabbos and eating is prohibited on Yom Kippur, but when it is matter of life and death, such prohibitions are suspended. In addition, serious health implications short of danger to life may suspend other prohibitions, such as Rabbinic prohibitions on Shabbos. In each of these cases, there are very important practical halachic decisions to be made. But they are not made using the traditional tools of P'sak: consensus, majority rule (Rov Minyan U'Binyan), appeals to recognized authorities and adherence to precedent. Instead, the decisions are made based on whatever the latest scientific and medical evidence tells us, as well as by the testimony of the affected individual as to the state of his or her own health.
This is true not only in the obvious cases where a person's health is being protected and thus "overrides" the halacha. As Rabbi Meiselman notes (TCS pg. 195) Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that with regard to human T'reifos in Hilchos Rotze'ach and with regard to determination of Petzuah Daka, current medical knowledge is the deciding factor, not a traditional understanding of what makes a person mortally wounded or infertile. Thus decisions in these areas are made by scientific evaluation, not by legal methods of P'sak or adherence to tradition, despite their practicality. As medical understanding changes, so does the P'sak.
The reason for this is clear. Some elements of practical halacha turn on factual determinations, not on legal determinations. As we have noted, those factual determinations cannot be made by halachic decision making processes such as "majority rule". We can see this distinction play out in the dispute over Metzitzah B'Peh. For authorities who rule that metzitzah itself is a Mitzvah, adherence to the traditional methods are essential or at least an important consideration, while for those who maintain that metzitzah is a health measure, updates to the methods based on modern medicine are not only relevant but mandatory.
We want to emphasize here that we're not claiming that halacha is in constant flux based on changes in our understanding of nature. Many or most halachos are decided and remain in force whether or not their underlying reasoning matches our current view of nature. For example, it is apparent that our view of Treifos in animals is not dependent on current science or medical technology. Our point is simply that when the halacha does depend on the underlying factual matter, such as the halachos that we have referenced above, then tools of P'sak are not used to make decisions with regard to these factual matters, even though they affect the practical halacha.
Returning to the question of mandatory beliefs, it goes without saying that mandated beliefs must also be beliefs in truthful assertions. It is not possible to mandate belief in a falsity. In fact, such a mandate destroys the Torah because if the Torah mandates belief that "X is true", then this is tantamount to saying that the the truth of the Torah implies the truth of "X". By contraposition, this is logically equivalent to saying that "X is false" implies "the Torah is false". As a result, "X" cannot simultaneously be a mandated belief and false. (As an aside, this implies that parsimony in mandatory beliefs is desirable, but that is a topic for another essay).
Thus, while mandatory beliefs may be practical, genuine disputes over the truthfulness of a purported mandatory belief cannot be decided by the methods of P'sak. This analysis supports the contention of Rabbi Carmell and Rabbi Kaplan that reliance on a minority or singular opinion (Daas Yachid) in areas of belief is perfectly justifiable and cannot be refuted by appeals to the rules of P'sak. If there is a true minority opinion or singular opinion supporting a factual belief, then there is a genuine dispute which can only be resolved by appeals to evidence of the sort useful in the relevant field. Or there may simply not be enough evidence to resolve the dispute. (I want to thank commenter "First Last" for helping me to clarify my thoughts in this area).
Returning to the Rambam's P'sak on the definition of a Min, an important observation to make here is that the Rambam’s P’sak in this case could affect halachos related to how to treat a “Min” and whether a person with specific false beliefs is merely mistaken or defined as a "Min" per halacha. The P’sak can’t change the underlying reality of the corporeality or non-corporeality of God, nor can it change whether or not the individual merits Olam Haba. So it remains the case that P’sak cannot decide what beliefs are actually correct, although it may have a large impact on how someone with beliefs inconsistent with those of the community would be treated. This provides no support for the Rabbi Meiselman’s theory that acceptable beliefs can be determined through halachic decision making processes such as “Rov”. (For a much longer explication of this topic, see Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s “They Could Say It, We Cannot”: Defining the Charge of Heresy).
In our next post, with God's help, we'll apply Rabbi Meiselman's thesis, and our analysis of it, to the theories of Rabbi Carmell and Rabbi Kaplan around the age of the Universe.
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.