Monday, June 12, 2006

Thoughts on Afikei Mayim

I just borrowed the recently published volume entitled Afikei Mayim, composed by a (seemingly close) talmid of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, a Rabbi Schmeltzer, if I remember correctly. (I've returned the book already, and although I took some notes beforehand, I'm working partially from memory.) I read through the introduction and the first section of the book, which is called "Likut Kedushas Ha-Torah," and is mostly comprised of quotations from various sources that advocate what one might call a sort of "fundamentalist" approach to the Torah, the Talmud, Chazal, and the Rishonim. I was glad to read it, because it argues (thoroughly, I hope) for a perspective fiercely opposed to what I present in "Sources Indicating That Chazal Did Not Possess Perfect Scientific Knowledge." The examination of opposing views is an important part of any truth-seeking endeavour; counterarguments will either reinforce a prior opinion, if they prove weak, or change it in their strength. I personally found this book's exposition uncompelling.

I'd like to note a few thoughts I had while reading and pondering the book.

1. Regarding the question that most interests me – the quality (and quantity) of Chazal's scientific knowledge: I counted, in an informal tally, about 7 sources that clearly assumed that Chazal never erred in their scientific statements. Three of them were major authorities: the Rivash, the Maharal, and the Chazon Ish. Two others – the Gra and the Chida – seemed borderline to me; I couldn't decide whether they were definitely taking this position or not. The earliest of all these writers were the Rivash and the Rashbatz, who lived in the fourteenth century. All the rest were Acharonim.

One thing that struck me (as it has in the past) about many of these sources was that they were long on the hyperbole but short on the proofs. Very short. The argument, it seemed to me, generally went like this: "Chazal were unfathomably holy and close to God. We are mere dust at their feet. Anyone who questions them is going straight to Hell. [Insert biblical verse here.] All of those passages that seem to contradict modern science mean something completely different, much deeper and more sublime. What exactly do they mean? I haven't the foggiest – or – I can't tell you. Also, all of modern science is wrong, except for the parts that they stole from us. Chazal never made mistakes. They knew it all. Trust me." That, to me, is not a convincing presentation.

Sorry if you found that last paragraph a bit too biting for your taste. I do generally try to be judicious.

2. I was blown away by the quotation of the Rashbatz in a footnote (#3 or #4, I believe) which seems to aver that Chazal not only didn't make scientific mistakes, but actually knew all scientific facts. I am reluctant to believe that the Rashbatz really thought that Chazal knew everything in the scientific sphere; nonetheless, the quotation from him may lead others to that conclusion. I had started to believe that the fourth grouping in my post on the topic of Chazal's scientific knowledge – sources indicating that "Chazal Were Not Scientifically Omniscient" – was redundant, for nobody with any intelligence would ever contest the point. Now I'm not so sure.

3. Notice footnote #6: a quotation from the Shevus Yaakov that includes his insistence that the Earth must be flat, since the Talmud says so.

4. Perhaps there are some fine distinctions that I missed, but my impression was that some of the sources the book quotes (Rabbi Chaim Vital, for instance) advocate complete literalism in interpreting the statements of Chazal, while others (Maharal, for example), reject literalism in favour of... something else – though maybe not what would classically be called allegory. This does not constitute a flaw in the book; a compilation of views need not present one unified approach to a topic (indeed, variety is often good!). I'm merely pointing out that the book seems not to present a unified approach.

5. I was a bit confused by the author's reference in a footnote (I think at the beginning of the Kabbalah section) to the statement of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (whom he does not actually name) that "They were permitted to hold this opinion; we are not." When Rabbi Aharon Feldman cites this statement of Rabbi Elyashiv, he describes the context as follows: "[Rabbi Elyashiv] was asked: if he considers [Rabbi Nosson] Slifkin’s approach wrong how could so many earlier authorities have held it? He answered: 'They were permitted to hold this opinion; we are not.'" However, as presented in Afikei Mayim, Rabbi Elyashiv seems to have been discussing belief in Kabbalah. It would be nice to know who his interlocutor was when he made this comment. (Or maybe someone could encourage him to write a piece on the topic himself?)

6. I really liked the responsum stating that it is heresy to contradict anything in the Or Hachaim.

7. The author calls into question the authorship of certain letters attributed to Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. I'll assume that Rabbi Hirsch was indeed the author, given that Rabbi Dr. Mordechai Breuer, who I understand to be a leading expert on Rabbi Hirsch, believes the letters to have been his (and, indeed, published them as such).

8. The author also calls into question the authorship of certain passages attributed to Rabbeinu Avraham ben Harambam. I know that Mossad Harav Kook – a reputable company – published Rabbeinu Avraham's Milchemot Hashem, containing what I assume are the incriminating passages. The book was edited by Rabbi Reuven Margolios, author of Margoliot Hayam, and the title page says, "Published from a manuscript written during the lifetime of the author." I believe, as well, that the famous (and recently controversial) excerpt from it has been printed in the standard Ein Yaakov editions for more than a century, without any great fuss being made over it by the bulk of rabbinic authorities. These reasons all lead me to assume that it is indeed authentic.

(Aside: I suspect that the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible could be subjected to challenges far greater than those confronting the work of Rabbeinu Avraham.)

13 comments:

Daniel said...

Great post!

I wonder if those who said that "Everything Chazal said is true" were using hyperbole, and did not neccessarily mean to include the scientific pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

I had started to believe that the fourth grouping in my post on the topic of Chazal's scientific knowledge – sources indicating that "Chazal Were Not Scientifically Omniscient" – was redundant, for nobody with any intelligence would ever contest the point. Now I'm not so sure.

I once spoke with an avreich who told me that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z"l knew EVERYTHING. I said, Even the cure for cancer? He said yes, but he didn't tell anyone because the generation was not ready for it.

He Who Must Not Be Named said...

Daniel, I think you're probably right, at least regarding some of the sources.

If a rabbi is writing that Chazal did make errors, he will probably limit his statement as much as possible. He certainly won't want to overstate the case. Many rabbis would probably (and understandably) have far fewer reservations about exaggerating in the other direction.

lamedzayin said...

I've always found the historical machlokes (now almost entirely buried) about heliocentrism and Torah, to be a fascinating source. No one reads the rakia as hard anymore, not even literalists who would likely profess shock that it was ever commonly read this way, despite explicit gemarahs and statements of the Rambam and others. And with the exception of a few fringe nutters who publish scientifically illiterate letters in the Yated, no one takes a geocentrically literal or flat earth literal approach either. Yet, in their time, both these ideas (and heliocentricity far more than a global earth, which was more than suspected in ancient times anyways) were subject to immense debates with allegations of kefira on the one hand and emes on the other. It's telling how thoroughly that debate has been won that no one even remembers that it happened!

Calling things you don't like a forgery is a time honored trick that is exactly that - a trick - since it doesn't convince anyone who is intelligent enough to see past the polemic.

As for the sources, it's important to remember that Rav Chaim Vital reports that his Rebbe the Arizal could talk to animals. I certainly do not believe that, (although I am sure that he did believe it, without necessarily calling him a liar, naive, or crazy since there's a lot of explanations that one could give for why he would have such a belief.) In other words, I don't particularly trust his reports about what Rabbis can or can't do and did or didn't know.

As for hyperbole chachamim hizaharu b'divreichem!!! Perhaps there was a point in Jewish History where strongly insisting on the infallibility of Chazal was a protection of kavod haTorah, but today it is a mockery. When a rational person struggling with faith is faced on the one hand by reasoned and demonstrable facts and on the other hand by hysterical hyperbole, Torah does not come out the winner. When Gedolim deny scientific facts while themselves remaining manifestly ignorant of said facts, what would an unbiased observer believe? Such passionate defenses of literalism merely serves to underline that they authors have nothing to say that could be presented in a reasonable tone.

Anonymous said...

"However, as presented in Afikei Mayim, Rabbi Elyashiv seems to have been discussing belief in Kabbalah"

Maybe he was talking about kabbalists belief in prior cycles of the universe, one of the shitas that is raised to justify belief in ancient U.

"I really liked the responsum stating that it is heresy to contradict anything in the Or Hachaim."

the quote is that it's apikorsus to say that not everything in the or hachaim is written b'ruach hakodesh

He Who Must Not Be Named said...

"However, as presented in Afikei Mayim, Rabbi Elyashiv seems to have been discussing belief in Kabbalah"

Maybe he was talking about kabbalists belief in prior cycles of the universe, one of the shitas that is raised to justify belief in ancient U.


I don't have the book in front of me, but I don't recall it saying anything like that.

I.oana said...

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He Who Must Not Be Named said...

"However, as presented in Afikei Mayim, Rabbi Elyashiv seems to have been discussing belief in Kabbalah"

Maybe he was talking about kabbalists belief in prior cycles of the universe, one of the shitas that is raised to justify belief in ancient U.


I checked. There's no mention of that idea in the context of Rabbi Elyashiv's remark.

Voldie said...

Not to arm the fools, but I believe there is also a teshuva of the rashba insisting that chazal were always right. He says something to the effect of, "Let 1000 people [who think they saw what is halachically a treifa live more than a year] pass and let not one tittle pass from the words of our holy sages" (okay, my quote is by memory and probably way off, but same point.)

Also, the guys who say that chazal were of course always right but were talking about some mystical idea are being foolish. If chazal make lots of pronouncem,ents, 90% of which need to be reinterpreted, then there's no more reason to listen to chazal; after all, you never know what they're actually trying to say!

He Who Must Not Be Named said...

A statement about treifot does not necessarily translate into an inviolable policy. Treifot are (according to most, anyway) halacha lemoshe misinai; that makes things a lot more dicey.

"Arm the fools" is just an expression, I guess, but my belief is that one who is right can afford to be very respectful.

Voldie said...

If I recall the rashba correctly, and I may not, he defends it because chazal said it, not because it's a halachah limosheh misinai. I do, however, appreciate your point.

And I apologize if my words offend you, but the utter lack of integrity and common sense displayed throughout the entire Slifkin episode is too much for me to handle levelheadedly.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

And I apologize if my words offend you, but the utter lack of integrity and common sense displayed throughout the entire Slifkin episode is too much for me to handle levelheadedly.


I find this funny. If only you realize that your side, then, is also lacking in integrity and commense sense when it is appalled by the lack of the same, you would know better.