When Is A Mesorah Not A Mesorah?
(If the topic of this post doesn't interest you, please skip to the announcement at the end regarding my lecture tour.)
As the field of Torah/science changes, due to increased scientific knowledge and increased awareness of classical Jewish sources, the rationalist approach gains steam. The response from anti-rationalists also evolves. Never underestimate people's creativity! Nine years ago, we saw the innovation that opinions of Rambam, Rav Hirsch and so on can be "paskened" to be a heretical perversion of theology. Now, with the new assault on the rationalist approach by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman and his protege Dovid Kornreich, there's another novel stratagem.
The new stratagem is a method for wholesale dismissal of Rishonim who give inconvenient explanations, while simultaneously condemning those who dispute certain other explanations of Rishonim for the crime of "attacking the mesorah." The attempted justification for this contradictory approach is the claim that the Rishonim intended certain explanations "tentatively," while other explanations were given definitively. But of course, there is no a priori method given for determining which is which; rather, the determination is made based upon which approach gives the desired result.
Rabbi Meiselman discards the views of all the Rishonim and Acharonim regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statement that lice are not parin v'ravin. He is also willing to dismiss their views regarding the meaning of the Gemara's statements about astronomy, and its statements about the mouse that grows from dirt. He attempts to justify such large-scale dismissal of Rishonim by saying that "It was never their intention that their explanations were definitely what Chazal meant. They were merely doing their best to understand an obscure piece of Gemara, using the most reliable scientific information available to them" (p. 146).
Now, what is the basis for such a claim? Rabbi Meiselman argues that "they certainly never intended to chain Chazal's words to their understanding, so that if they should be proven wrong, Chazal's teachings would fall along with them. On the contrary, they would have been the first to say that their interpretations were evidently incorrect."
But is this true? In the case of astronomy, I demonstrated that it is certainly not true. There, the Rishonim do not “interpret this passage in terms of astronomical theories that were accepted in their day.” They explain it as referring to a mistaken and obsolete view!
But what about in the case of lice? Would the Rishonim have changed their explanation of Chazal's words had they known that lice do not spontaneously generate? The simple truth is that it is impossible to know. My feeling is that some would have changed their explanation, and some would not. Yet in any case, it's irrelevant. As long as they did not know that spontaneous generation was an impossibility, they believed that their explanations were correct. They did not indicate in any way that they were only tentatively suggesting these explanations.
Furthermore, one point is beyond dispute. It is abundantly clear that had the Rishonim been confronted with evidence that their explanations of certain Scriptural stories were wrong, they would certainly have retracted their explanations. Yet this is a case where Rabbi Meiselman takes their explanations as being definitive and beyond dispute!
Turning to Rabbi Meiselman's protege Kornreich in the latest issue of Dialogue, the contradictions and unreasonability of the approach become even more pronounced. Kornreich concedes that the Rishonim of Europe, aside from being mistaken about spontaneous generation, human anatomy, astronomy and so on, also made certain errors due to their geographical removal from the world of Torah and Chazal. Thus, he admits that their understanding of the geography of Eretz Yisrael contains inaccuracies. However, he insists that when it comes to identifying flora and fauna, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim of Europe erred. This, he argues, is a "fundamental part of our mesorah," because it relates to halachic definitions and terms. Accusing them of "wittingly or unwittingly" being in error "impugns the integrity" of their character and "undermines our belief in the accuracy of that mesorah." Thus, it is unacceptable to say that the Rishonim of Europe, due to geographical limitations, erred in their halachic identification of maror, shibbolet shual, the kezayis, the tzvi or the shafan.
The problem with this distinction is that, aside from being completely invented out of thin air, it is very clearly contradicted by the sources. First, as I pointed out above, the Rishonim gave what they viewed as correct explanations of spontaneous generation, and human anatomy, which definitely have halachic ramifications, and yet Kornreich dismisses all their views on this topic. Second, many authorities have clearly stated that the European Rishonim erred in these identifications due to geographical limitations.
With maror, I am told that the Roshei Yeshivah of RIETS, including Rav Schachter and Rav Willig, will not make the berachah of al achilas maror on horseradish. They recognize that Europeans only legitimized the use of horseradish because they had no access to leafy vegetables. And there are several cases where prominent early Rishonim discounted the views of European Rishonim on halachic matters due to their geographical limitations. We have noted previously that Radvaz negates the view of R. Eliyahu Mizrahi (and effectively many others) who identified the "River of Egypt," stated to be the border of Eretz Yisrael, as the river Nile, pointing out that they were unfamiliar with the geographical reality, due to their living in Europe. Ramban negates Rashi's view regarding one of the ingredients of the ketores. Rav Yosef Karo negates the Tur's view regarding which berachah to make on sugar, on the grounds that the Tur was not from a place where sugar grows and was unfamiliar with the nature of it.
The tzvi provides a potent example of how Kornreich's approach is without basis. In my letter to Dialogue, I wrote that "Europe has very different animals from those of Eretz Yisrael, and the names of animals in Tanach were transposed to local equivalents. For example, the gazelle of Israel perfectly matches all Scriptural, Talmudic and Midrashic descriptions of the tzvi. While Jews in north Africa, which also has gazelles, had a (correct) tradition that the tzvi is the gazelle (and that the deer is the ayal), there were no gazelles in Europe. As a result, the name tzvi in Europe was transposed to the deer (hirsch). This led Rashi, in his commentary to Chullin 59b, to note that the creature traditionally called tzvi in Europe (i.e. the deer) is not the tzvi described by Chazal. Thus, Rashi himself observes that European traditions regarding the identities of animals mentioned in the Torah are not accurate."
Kornreich attempts to discount this by creating an artificial distinction between different classes of animal identification. He claims that "the translation of tzvi as a deer was never an halachic one employed by the Gedoley Torah of Rashi's time, but merely one used in the vernacular." According to Kornreich, Rashi's very point is that the tzvi only means deer in the vernacular, and this was never a halachic mesorah. However, if you take a look at Rashi's words, that is not at all what he was saying - he was genuinely troubled by the deer not matching the Talmudic accounts of the tzvi. Furthermore, Kornreich has not studied the topic - Tosafos maintains that the tzvi is indeed the deer, and engages in a textual emendation of the halachic criteria given in the Gemara in order to make it fit! Clearly, the translation of tzvi as a deer was indeed an halachic one employed by the Gedoley Toyrah of Rashi's time.
Kornreich argues that the Rishonim must have known that the animal and plant life of Europe differs from that of Eretz Yisrael, and they would thus not have given their identifications unless they were certain that their geographic distance was irrelevant. But this is simply a naive retroactive projection upon the Rishonim. It's certainly not "impugning the integrity of their character," as Kornreich charges, to say that they did not realize that the animal life of Israel is very different from that of Europe. I find that even people today generally don't realize that the animal and plant life of Israel is fundamentally different from that of Europe and North America. When it comes to rabbinic approaches to zoology - the topic of my doctoral dissertation - Kornreich is simply completely out of his depth. In my extensive studies of the history of rabbinic and non-rabbinic attempts to identify the flora and fauna of Scripture, it is clear that it was only in the last two centuries that people began to become adequately sensitive to geographical differences in animal distribution. Furthermore, if you look at the tremendous difference between the definitions of kosher and non-kosher animals, birds and insects (a topic with halachic ramifications) given by European Rishonim, and those given by Rav Saadiah Gaon and other authorities from the region of Israel, it's obvious that this is due to each interpreting them in terms of animal life with which they were familiar.
In conclusion: this stratagem of wholesale dismissal of Rishonim who give inconvenient explanations, while simultaneously condemning those who dispute certain other explanations of Rishonim for the crime of "attacking the mesorah," is hopelessly illogical, contrary to the sources, and self-contradictory. But alas, I suspect that the result of my pointing this out will not result in a retraction of this approach. Instead, it will result in even creative and intellectually dishonest attempts to come up with hair-splitting differences to enable the wholesale dismissal of Rishonim that they don't like, while condemning those who do not follow the Rishonim that they do like.
On another note, due to a schedule change, I am available in New York for Shabbos of January 25. If you are interested in hosting me as scholar-in-residence in your community, please be in touch. I am also available in California for the Shabbos of January 18.