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When Trembling Becomes Paralysis
A post appeared on Cross-Currents two weeks ago which read almost like a position-paper for anti-rationalism. Written by a Rabbi Shaul Gold, and entitled "Trembling Before Rashi," it was about how it is unacceptable for anyone to argue with Rishonim even with regard to an issue such as whether their given peshat in a pasuk is actually the peshat.
Aside from the disturbing nature of the content of the post, there also appears to have been a higher-than-usual rate of comments rejected. Here are three comments from people; if you submitted a comment that was rejected, please send it in.
>We need to teach our children reverence for Rashi, Ramban, et al, and to teach them (and ourselves) that we are not the final arbiters of the truth, and that we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom.
Wow. "submit our understanding" - truly one of the most frightening phrases that exists in the world. For people to abdicate their intellect - the greatest gift that Hashem gave us - to others is a truly dangerous idea.
>Rashi’s peirush is beyond that stage, and disagreement belongs only to his contemporaries.
Says who??? When did we deify Rashi and the rishonim and make them infallible. When did we stop subjecting them the same critical analysis to which all knowledge should be subjected? You seem to be taking your overdeveloped sense of reverence and trying to turn it into a overarching rule that should apply to everyone. That is unacceptable.
All in all, your approach demonstrates beautifully the divide between the chareidi world's approach to education and the approach of those of us who want to educate our kids to be open minded and think critically. In my opinion, your approach can result in one of two results, for kids without a natural critical instinct, it will create a simplistic and underdeveloped world view that can not function and confront the larger world. For kids with such an instinct, it will develop contempt for the rishonim since it will not properly contextualize those statements of theirs which will sound very odd (and sometimes downright silly) to their contemporary ears. Either result is highly undesirable.
R’ Nochum’s approach is not representative of the universal or even normative approach in history. Rambam certainly did not take that approach when arguing with his predecessors; Rav Hirsch certainly did not take that approach when arguing with Rambam; Chassam Sofer did not take that approach when arguing with Rashi; and countless dozens of further examples could be given.
Also, see Eric Lawee, “Words Unfitly Spoken: Two Critics of the Role of Midrash in Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah,” in Between Rashi And Maimonides, as well as other articles by him, for examples of rabbinic authorities who criticized Rashi’s use of Midrash. See too his article “The Reception of Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah in Spain: The Case of Adam’s Mating with the Animals.”
Classic straw-man. I don’t think anyone in the “orthodox camp” (oh no, not that term again) would dismiss Rashi lightly or flippantly. But recognizing the need to respect a point of view or the person that espouses a point of view does not necessitate canonizing that perspective or person. Conversely, asserting a right to disagree with a view or person does not also offer a license to disrespect or denigrate it. The worldview evinced by the article is symptomatic of the chareidi world. Disagreement and delegitimization go hand in hand, and since you cannot disrespect [chareidi] “gedolim” (something I think almost all of us can agree on), you also can’t disagree with them; to disagree with them is to disrespect them. Of course, the more enlightened non-am-haratzim know that disagreement is endemic to Torah and halacha, and that for the most part history and halachic guidelines demonstrate that we can disagree and do so in a legitimate and respectful way.
Looking at it from the other side, chareidi deligitimization of modern orthodoxy and modern orthodoxy's acceptance of chareidi Judaism as a legitimate expression of Torah life makes sense. Since the chareidim disagree with the MO, the MO have no legitimacy. The MO by contrast can disagree with the chareidi way of life without negating the normative legitimacy of that hashkafa.
Here are some further thoughts of my own:
First, the Rishonim freely argued with Chazal on matters unrelated to law. For a list of examples, see Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, Sifsei Chaim - Pirkei Emunah u-Bechirah, vol. 2 pp. 257-272. For example, the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 89:11) and Tosefta (Sotah 10:9) state that the famine in Egypt ended five years early when Jacob entered the land. But Ramban (Genesis 47:18) disputes this and writes that the famine lasted for seven full years. See too Ibn Ezra in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, where he writes that one may offer alternate interpretations to those of the Sages in cases unrelated to law. If the Rishonim can differ from the views of Chazal in such matters, why can we not differ from the views of the Rishonim?
Second, Rabbi Gold apparently understands yeridas hadoros to mean that earlier generations are actually more intelligent than later generations (something discussed in a post from a long time ago, including a debate as to whether people today really believe that - clearly, at least some people do). Does this mean that gentiles in the past were also more intelligent? And does it mean that future generations will be less intelligent than us? Is there a biological mechanism to explain this decline in intelligence? There are a number of problems with such a view of yeridas hadoros.
Third, is Rabbi Gold going to be consistent? For example:
Is he going to teach his students that Adam had intercourse with all the animals? After all, this is the view of Rashi, according to the view of certain other Rishonim (see Eric Lawee's article referenced above), and Rabbi Gold believes that "we need to submit our understanding to their superior ken and wisdom."
Is he going to teach his students that according to some Rishonim, such as Rav Moshe Taku, Hashem has spatial location and physical form, and that we have no right to choose between the different views?
Is he going to teach his students that there is such a thing as mermaids? That there is such a thing as werewolves? That Og was approximately the height of the Empire State Building? And that one has no right to dispute any of this? After all, these are all the view of Rashi.
I would not begrudge Rabbi Gold's right to this approach. What bothers me is that he is apparently presenting this as the required approach for everyone - even though many people greater than he clearly had/have a different approach. (For a great example, see Rav Moshe Shamah's comments on Rashi in last week's parashah, in his wonderful new book Recalling The Covenant).
By the way, one should not think that only Cross-Currents is guilty of such sweeping comment rejection. I reject certain comments myself (people are welcome to set up an alternate blog where they post them; I would just ask that they be honest about whether they are posting all rejected comments, or only those which line up with their hashkafic view). And I recently submitted a comment to a Ha'aretz article which was rejected: the article was about "Haredi men suspected of repeated rape" and I questioned why they would not describe the religious/ social affiliation of other types of people who engaged in such crimes. "Secular Zionist suspected of repeated rape" is not a headline that I am expecting to see in Ha'aretz anytime soon.