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Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam
Rewriting Jewish Intellectual History: A Review of Sefer Chaim Be’Emunasom
Part 7: Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam
Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s “Letter concerning the Aggados of Chazal” is the most famous (albeit far from unique) source concerning Chazal’s errancy in scientific matters:
…We are not obliged, on account of the great superiority of the sages of the Talmud, and their expertise in their explanations of the Torah and its details, and the truth of their sayings in the explanation of its general principles and details, to defend them and uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy, or to believe them [in those matters] as we believe them regarding the explanation of the Torah… we find that they made medicinally related statements in the Gemara which have not been justified or validated...
Lest one think that R. Schmeltzer does not sufficiently respect Rabbeinu Avraham as part of the mesorah, he quotes from a different letter of Rabbeinu Avraham on p. 26 and on p. 30 describing the need to accept the wisdom of Chazal’s statements, as the first source enlisted in the chapter on the need to accept all the words of Chazal, whether in halachah or aggadah. R. Schmeltzer is making it clear that he does not consider Rabbeinu Avraham to be a figure outside of the mesorah. Incidentally, this citation from Rabbeinu Avraham has nothing to do with prohibiting doubting any statement of Chazal, as R. Schmeltzer claims; instead it is quite clearly discussing ethical and homiletic teachings.
But with regard to the famous essay from Rabbeinu Avraham concerning the potential errors of Chazal’s scientific statements, which should surely be a central point of discussion in a book on this topic, it is only relegated to a footnote. And in this footnote (p. 224 note 5), R. Schmeltzer, following Rav Moshe Shapiro, claims that the essay is a forgery! While the superficial language of the footnote may indicate that he is merely raising questions as to its authenticity, the clear message of the footnote, and indeed of the wider context, is that it is and must be a forgery. After all, he has already established that someone who doubts anything in the Gemara, even scientific statements, is liable for the death penalty!
But not only is there no reason to conclude that the essay must be a forgery, there is not even any serious reason to doubt its authenticity, especially the section regarding Chazal’s knowledge about science.
In 1974, Rabbi Elazar Hurvitz published fragments from the Cairo Genizah of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s essay in its original Judeo-Arabic (dating possibly back to the 14th century), along with an overview of the various manuscripts available and their citations by other Torah authorities. Parts of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam’s essay are quoted in Hebrew translation by 16th century authors, including R. Vidal Tzarfati in the introduction to his Imrei Yosher commentary on Midrash Rabbah and R. Avraham Ibn Migash in his Kevod Elokim. There are similarities between the essay and some of Rabbeinu Avraham’s other writings; significantly, Rabbeinu Avraham writes in his Milchamos Hashem that the Jewish sages conceded to the gentile sages regarding the path of the sun at night. It is also completely consistent with Rambam’s own views.
R. Schmeltzer argues that the manuscript’s authenticity is in doubt in light of the fact that the 1836 publication of a Hebrew translation includes a fraudulent signature at the end of it, and that various manuscripts contain differences. But this is simply nonsense. The differences in the manuscripts reflect obvious kabbalistic additions from the copyist, Rabbi Avraham Eilburg of Braunschweig. The various manuscripts of Hebrew translations that exist, some dating from the 16th century, are all fundamentally the same – a fraudulent signature that was added to one of them does not undermine the manuscript’s authenticity. Thus, we have multiple copies of the manuscript from different sources, some dating as far as the fourteenth century, which are all fundamentally similar, which are entirely consistent with the other writings of Rabbeinu Avraham and his father Rambam, and which have been repeatedly published and widely accepted as being Rabbeinu Avraham’s view (even by those who strongly disputed the actual position) without anyone batting an eyelash. Then all of a sudden, following the ban on my books, some non-specialists claim that a recent maskil substantially changed the text! Many have disputed Rabbeinu Avraham’s approach, but I do not know of anyone who claimed that he never wrote it; Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach wrote that he does not know if anyone is even entitled to dispute it. And again, since the fundamental point of contention here is regarding Rabbeinu Avraham’s views concerning Chazal being mistaken in science, the entire discussion is irrelevant, since Rabbeinu Avraham reiterates in Milchamos Hashem that Chazal erred in this matter and R. Yehudah HaNasi conceded their error.
R. Schmeltzer quotes Rav Aharon Kotler as saying that the approach of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam is not our mesorah. If this means that it is not the accepted approach in the charedi yeshivah world today, I do not deny that. But with regard to whether they are part of any mesorah – part of a legitimate tradition handed down through the generations – Rav Yitzchak Herzog, a rebbe of Rav Elyashiv, writes that “the attitude of the orthodox Jew towards the scientific matter embedded in this colossal mass of Jewish religious learning may be best summed up in the words of R. Abraham Maimuni, the great son of the greatest codifier of Jewish law and the foremost Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages...” Certainly many authorities have been of the opinion that it was very much part of the mesorah. It has been traditionally printed in the Ein Yaakov and quoted in dozens of other works, even in the ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud, and was recently cited approvingly in a Yated Ne’eman article about Rabbeinu Avraham. Is it reasonable to suppose that all these people have been utterly unaware of the true nature of the mesorah, or is it more reasonable to suppose that R. Schmeltzer is defining the mesorah far more narrowly than the reality?
In any case, R. Schmeltzer co-opts the view of Rav Kotler as though he was likewise claiming it to be a forgery. There are absolutely no serious grounds for considering it a forgery, and in any case Rabbeinu Avraham reiterates the same view in his other writings, and furthermore it has been widely accepted as the legitimate view of Rabbeinu Avraham for hundreds of years. To dismiss it as a heretical forgery in a footnote is unacceptable.