Monday, October 31, 2005

Ibn Ezra on Torah Authorship

There has been at least one request for me to provide more comprehensive information regarding my claim that the Ibn Ezra says various Pentateuchal verses were not written by Moses (as dictated by God). Here you go:

As I quote in "Rabbinic vs. Modern Academic Beliefs", Ibn Ezra says the following in his comment on Deuteronomy 34:1, the twelfth-last verse of Deuteronomy:

ויעל משה. לפי דעתי, כי מזה הפסוק כתב יהושע, כי אחר שעלה משה לא כתב. ובדרך נבואה כתבו; והעד, ויראהו ה', גם ויאמר ה' אליו, גם ויקבור׃

"'And Moses ascended.' My view is that Joshua wrote [the final verses of Deuteronomy] beginning with this verse, for Moses did not write after he ascended. He [Joshua] wrote it prophetically, as indicated by [statements of facts he could not otherwise have known, such as] 'God showed him...', 'God said to him...', '[God] buried...'."

The Talmud (Bava Batra 15a) records a dispute regarding the final eight verses of Deuteronomy.

תניא, "וימת שם משה עבד ה'." אפשר משה מת [/חי] וכתב "וימת שם משה?" אלא עד כאן כתב משה; מכאן ואילך כתב יהושע -- דברי רבי יהודה, ואמרי לה רבי נחמיה. אמר לו רבי שמעון, אפשר ספר תורה חסר אות אחת וכתיב "לקוח את ספר התורה הזה?" אלא עד כאן הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר ומשה אומר וכותב; מכאן ואילך הקדוש ברוך הוא אומר ומשה כותב בדמע׃

It was taught in a baraita: "'Moses, the servant of God, died there.' Is it possible that Moses was dead [alt.: was alive] and wrote 'Moses died there?' Rather, Moses wrote until this point [in Deuteronomy]; Joshua wrote from this point onward" -- the words of Rabbi Yehudah, or, according to some, Rabbi Nehemiah. Rabbi Shimon said to him, "Is it possible that the book of the law [the Pentateuch] was missing even one letter and yet it was written [that God said to Moses], 'Take this book of the law?' Rather, until this point God dictated and Moses repeated orally and wrote down; from this point onward God dictated and Moses wrote down with tears."
[Note: There is more than one opinion regarding the meaning of the word בדמע in this passage. I have selected a common interpretation, "with tears." I do not believe that the differences in interpretation are relevant to this discussion.]

Ibn Ezra's view, cited above, that the last 12 verses of Deuteronomy were written by Joshua clearly contradicts both of these tannaic opinions. The first opinion, that of Rabbi Yehudah or Rabbi Nehemiah, states specifically that "Moses wrote until this point" [the eighth-last verse of Deuteronomy]; the second, that of Rabbi Shimon, insists that every letter of the Torah was written by Moses.

In the middle of his comment (s.v. "מחרב") on Deuteronomy 1:2, Ibn Ezra makes the following enigmatic statement:

ואם תבין סוד השנים עשר, גם "ויכתוב משה," "והכנעני אז בארץ," "בהר ה' יראה," גם "הנה ערשו ערש ברזל," תכיר האמת׃
And if you understand the secret of the twelve, also "Moses wrote" (Deuteronomy 31:22), "and the Canaanite[s] were then in the land" (Genesis 12:6), "on God's mountain, he will be seen" (Genesis 22:14), also "Behold, his bed was made of iron" (Deuteronomy 3:11), you will recognize the truth.

I believe that "the twelve" are the final twelve verses of the Pentateuch, which, as we have seen, Ibn Ezra explicitly states were not written by Moses. The "secret of the twelve" is a reference to non-Mosaic authorship. In this most recently quoted passage, Ibn Ezra claims that the introduction to the book of Deuteronomy, as well as the other verses or verse segments he lists, were not written by Moses. (Whether they were written by Joshua, or by someone else, he does not say.)

I find it fairly easy to understand why Ibn Ezra would make such claims about the specific verses he cites, with the sole exception of (ironically) the first verses of Deuteronomy. I will now proceed to quote each verse, explain what might have motivated Ibn Ezra to question Moses's authorship of it, cite any comments Ibn Ezra makes on each verse ad locum, and compare those comments to his statement at Deuteronomy 1:2.

Deuteronomy 31:22 reads,

ויכתב משה את השירה הזאת ביום ההוא וילמדה את בני ישראל׃

Moses wrote this song on that day, and he taught it to the children of Israel.

Now, Moses died very shortly thereafter. If he wrote this verse, it would have sounded very peculiar, because "on that day" (ביום ההוא) generally carries the connotation of more than a short time before. It would have been far better phraseology if employed significantly after the event, and therefore after Moses's death.

Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 31:22 itself says,

ביום ההוא. שלא איחר הדבר. ויתכן שהיה יום מותו אחר מכתב דברי התורה, כי השירה כתב משה עמה׃

"On that day." [Meaning] that he did not delay the matter. And it could be that the day of his death was after the writing of the words of the Torah, for the song itself Moses wrote with it.

Ibn Ezra states that "on that day" signifies that Moses did not delay in performing the task he had been assigned. If that is what it means, then there is no peculiarity in the phrase to justify the argument I presented in the previous paragraph. Note in the following paragraphs (see, for example, the bracketed discussion of Ibn Ezra's commentary to Genesis 12:6), however, that Ibn Ezra does not always seem absolute in his conviction that the verses he listed at Deuteronomy 1:2 actually carry the "secret" to which he refers several times, and that he sometimes advances other possible interpretations of the verses, according to which their Mosaic authorship is more plausible. Thus at 1:2 he may be presenting the option that the awkward wording of 31:22 suggests non-Mosaic authorship, whereas at 31:22 itself, he proposes another interpretation of the wording, one that is compatible with Moses having written it.

It is worth pointing out that Ibn Ezra clearly felt that there was something fishy about the "on that day" of 31:22; otherwise he need not have commented on it.

Genesis 12:6 reads,

ויעבר אברם בארץ עד מקום שכם עד אלון מורה והכנעני אז בארץ׃

Abram passed through the land until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh; and the Canaanite[s] were then in the land.

It is difficult to understand why Moses would have written "the Canaanites were then in the land," implying that by Moses's time they were not, when in fact they continued to be there until years after his death. Again, such a statement would more logically come from a later author, one living after the Israelite conquest of Canaan, during which the Canaanite population of the land, if not eliminated, was certainly sharply reduced, both in number and in power.

Ibn Ezra on Genesis 12:6, s.v. והכנעני אז בארץ, says,

יתכן שארץ כנען תפשה כנען מיד אחר. ואם איננו כן יש לו סוד, והמשכיל ידום׃

It could be that Canaan took the land of Canaan immediately after [the preceding events in the verse]. If it is not so, then [the verse] has a secret, and he who is intelligent shall be silent.

So here, as mentioned earlier, Ibn Ezra appears to be allowing for two possibilities: one that reconciles the problematic last three words with Mosaic authorship, and one that concedes that the verse (at least the end of it) was written later and by someone else.

Genesis 22:14 states,

ויקרא אברהם שם המקום ההוא ה' יראה אשר יאמר היום בהר ה' יראה׃

Abraham called the name of that place "God will see;" today, it is therefore said, "On God's mountain, he will be seen" (translation after the semi-colon from Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah).

Neither Moses nor, likely, almost any Israelite for at least two centuries prior to Moses's death had even seen this mountain, and it is unlikely that Moses could have truthfully stated, "Today, it is therefore said, 'On God's mountain, he will be seen.'" More likely almost nothing was ever said about it. Again, it would be a much more sensible thing to say for a person who lived in the land of Israel after the Israelite conquest and settlement, something Moses did not do.

Ibn Ezra's comment on Genesis 22:14 is a pithy

וטעם "בהר ה' יראה" ב"אלה הדברים"׃

The explanation of "on God's mountain, he will be seen" is in "These are the words" [i.e., his commentary on the first verses of Deuteronomy].

Here, Ibn Ezra simply refers the reader to his comments at the beginning of Deuteronomy, cited above.

Deuteronomy 3:11 reads,

כי רק עוג מלך הבשן נשאר מיתר הרפאים הנה ערשו ערש ברזל הלה הוא ברבת בני עמון תשע אמות ארכה וארבע אמות רחבה באמת איש׃

For only Og, King of Bashan, remained from the last of the Rephaim. His bed was made of iron, and is in the Ammonite city of Rabbah: its length is nine cubits, and its width is four cubits, the cubit being that of a normal man (translation adapted from Kaplan).

Why would Moses need to tell the people about Og's bed? They had fought him within the year! They had either seen him themselves, or heard about him from others. It would appear to have been totally superfluous for Moses to make such a statement. However, someone living in a later generation, one that had never seen Og for themselves, might be quite impressed indeed if told that they could personally view Og's massive bed, which survived until that day, made as it was of iron, in the city of Rabbah.

Ibn Ezra makes no comment ad locum on the verse.

There is one more comment of Ibn Ezra I'd like to cite, although its content is slightly further afield. At Deuteronomy 34:6, he writes:

עד היום הזה. דברי יהושע. ויתכן שכתב זה באחרית ימיו׃

"[No man] until this day [knows the site of Moses's burial]". [These are] the words of Joshua. And it is plausible that he wrote this at the end of his life.

I hope I've explained things clearly. If anyone can advance an alternative set of explanations of the various passages that I have quoted from Ibn Ezra's commentary, feel free to publish it (in the comments, or a separate post, etc). I'm not wedded to the idea that Ibn Ezra believed in, or at least considered possible, the non-Mosaic authorship of some parts of the Torah, but at this point, I don't know how else to understand what he wrote.

Once again, I'd like to thank Dr. Moshe Bernstein of Yeshiva University for much of the information I've provided here.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Rabbinic vs. Modern Academic Beliefs

Please note: When I wrote this, I was not familiar with the controversy that has surrounded this topic in the last year or so, but even though I now am, I think the questions I ask are just as valid as I did then.

I was discussing science and halacha with a friend of mine a few days ago, and then afterward I was mulling over various points that we brought up, as well as various points that we didn't. I'm sure I can find a million articles on the internet about these topics from YU, Gush and maybe Ohr Sameyach (how do you spell it?) or Aish, but I'm more interested right now in hearing what you know or think about it. To wit:

To what extent ought we to believe that the Talmudic rabbis' medical knowledge was wrong? My impression is that we need not assume that everything written by tannaim and amoraim is factual at face value. For example, I understand that the Rambam says that the medical remedies described/recommended in the Talmud were advocated by the rabbis of the age based on the prevailing medical wisdom of the day, and that if the prevailing medical wisdom of our day differs from theirs, we may disregard the Talmud's advice. Thus, effectively, when the Talmud states that such-and-such a remedy is an effective cure of such-and-such a disease, we disbelieve it.

Now, it could be that in such cases, the Talmudic sages were simply in possession of false information. I hope that our audience is mature enough to realize that tannaim and amoraim, however great they may have been in any number of ways, were imperfect humans just like us, men who made mistakes, including intellectual ones (some of their mistakes are recorded in the Talmud itself or in other documents we value; they presumably made other ones too, including, perhaps, ones that no one ever realized they made). So they may just have been wrong (along with all of the medical experts of their era, who were presumably the source of much of their information).

There are, of course, ways of viewing their statements as correct without accepting their advice at face value. One approach I assume you all know is the נשתנה הטבע idea -- that the laws of nature may have changed over the course of time, so that Talmudic statements related to natural realities may no longer hold true, though they were correct in their own era. Alternatively, seemingly incorrect Talmudic statements may hold true even today, but not literally; rather, only after some sort of interpretation (allegorical, for example) is applied. (These statements may or may not have been literally true when originally made; either way, the factual discrepancy is solved.) I know that (again) the Rambam says that many of the Talmud's aggadic statements ought to be understood in this fashion: as correct only when a suitable aliteral interpretation is applied. Conceivably, the same could be true of various other statements that modern science indicates are not literally correct.

And, to complete (I think) the set of logical possibilities, it could be that they were and are literally correct, and we're just too dumb to realize it.

So again, after all of that, to what extent should we consider medical statements of the Talmud that contradict modern biomedical knowledge to be wrong? And I don't mean just according to the Rambam. I'm interested in what we're actually supposed to believe and/or do, which may or may not reflect the Rambam's opinion. What do modern competent poskim say? Don't answer yet. That was by way of introduction.

Now what about other spheres of knowledge in which Talmudic statements contradict modern science, such as astronomy (geocentricity vs. heliocentricity of the solar system, for example), and the non-medical branches of biology? What if the theory of evolution seems right to you (as it does to many intelligent people), and you don't think the Talmud is compatible with it? I'd wager there are contradictions in chemistry and non-astronomical physics, too. What are we allowed to believe, and to disbelieve?

(N.B.: I am not asking (at this point, anyway) how to deal with apparent contradictions between modern science and the Chumash, or even Nach. I am limiting the scope of my question to rabbinic works composed, let's say, no more than a couple of centuries before the destruction of the Second Temple.

I am also not especially looking for information on how to deal with practical issues on which science and halacha differ, although maybe I should; I'm more interested, as I said, in what we may and what we may not believe and disbelieve. There are definitely things that Jews must believe (like the truth of the Torah) and things that they must not believe (such as the existence of more than one God); I am asking how far such imperatives extend in certain contexts.)

Let's go a bit further. How about contradictions between the Talmud and modern archaeology (such as the 166-year discrepancy on how long the Second Temple stood; which, by the way, is why, two paragraphs up, I reckoned my cutoff date relative to the second destruction, not the first destruction or the rebuilding)? There are many other examples, though perhaps not of the same historical significance.

You may be able to come up with other areas of investigation in which post-biblical rabbinic sources contradict the seemingly well-founded beliefs of the modern academic world. I apply the question to them, too.

IF the answer is that we sometimes believe the rabbis were wrong, or at least that the literal meaning of their words is not true today, how does that affect modern practical halacha, where the halacha is related to facts about which we and the Talmud disagree? Take, for example, the halacha that one may kill lice on Shabbat because they are the product of spontaneous generation, and are therefore different from the animals whose killing serves as the paradigm for the melacha of shochet. Given that modern science contradicts the notion that lice are spontaneously generated (it says, rather, that they reproduce sexually), does the halacha change? I'm expecting the answer will be that we follow the traditional halacha, even though we may not believe in the validity of the premise on which it is based. However, I think that that is not always true. Tread cautiously.

Those are my two basic questions. There are several related points I'd just like to record:

I don't see any major theological problem arising from the belief that the Talmudic rabbis were sometimes wrong in their science or history. Any limitations they may have had in certain spheres of knowledge do not detract from their status as pre-eminent Torah experts (i.e., the greatest authorities of the age on the true religion). To say otherwise would be equivalent to saying that Newton's mathematics and physics are unreliable because he was silly enough to spend years studying alchemy. (Actually, it would be even more inane, because the Torah says that Jewish religious leaders ought to be treated as the authorities on their religion, and so by definition, their religious dicta were valid. And moreover, I'm not aware that anyone has ever posed a credible overall challenge to their theology.)

My questions are, I think, totally unrelated to issues such as the existence of demons and other supernatural phenomena. To the best of my knowledge, science can't really disprove that such things exist; it just doesn't assume that they do (intelligent science, that is).

I also don't really see a number of the famous נשתנה הטבע applications as necessarily within the scope of this discussion. The classic "olives have shrunk" argument (explaining why a kzayit is (at least according to some) so much bigger than any olive anyone's ever seen) may be contradicted by scientists or historians, but how does that matter? We've still got to figure out what quantities the rabbis were talking about, and so we've still got to reconcile all of their various measures, and the relationships they reported between them (which is how נשתנה הטבע comes in, unless I'm much mistaken). To reiterate what I wrote in an earlier paragraph: the Talmudic rabbis are still our religious/halachic advisors, so even if their perceptions of reality don't seem to correspond to our own, we've still got to follow their directions, as best we can make them out.

The history of the Old Testament itself could conceivably be up for grabs, depending on how this question is answered. I recall from Intro to Bible at YU that, for example, the Book of Daniel is believed by historians to have been written long after the Talmud assumes it was. If you're willing to say that the Talmud is occasionally wrong about history, you're going to have to wrestle with issues like that. The history of the Chumash itself might be partially brought into question. It's a famous YU fact that Ibn Ezra says there are a few verses in Chumash that were added in after Moses died (and no, I'm not talking about the last 8; those you may take for granted). See, for example, Ibn Ezra on Deuteronomy 34:1:

ויעל משה. לפי דעתי, כי מזה הפסוק כתב יהושע, כי אחר שעלה משה לא כתב. ובדרך נבואה כתבו; והעד, ויראהו ה', גם ויאמר ה' אליו, גם ויקבור׃

"'And Moses ascended.' My view is that Joshua wrote [the final verses of Deuteronomy] beginning with this verse, for Moses did not write after he ascended. He [Joshua] wrote it prophetically, as indicated by [statements of facts he could not otherwise have known, such as] 'God showed him...', 'God said to him...', '[God] buried...'."

Another famous YU fact is that he (Ibn Ezra) says the Book of Isaiah was written by two different people. I don't think he says that it definitely was; just that it might have been. The source is his commentary on Isaiah 40:1. (Relatedly, see also his commentary on Isaiah 49:7, s.v. מלכים יראו וקמו. I warn you that it's cryptic.)

(My thanks to Dr. Moshe Bernstein of YU for much of my Ibn Ezra information.)

The authenticity of the Zohar might also come under scrutiny. I am quite ignorant about that subject; I just know that I've heard many orthodox people talk about it.

Another question: is it necessary to make Birkat Hatorah before studying parts of the Talmud related to (best example) obsolete medicine? Or, more dramatically, can you read such a passage aloud after the brachot in order to fulfill the requirement of performing the mitzvah immediately after making the bracha on it? (I'm pretty sure Noam Hinberg asked this question when we were in OTI. I don't remember anybody giving a really confident answer.)

What about a situation like the following: suppose prevailing wisdom among psychologists is that in certain cases, one can improve his mental health by speaking lashon hara. Does that make doing so (as recommended) halachically permissible? Does halacha view mental health in the same way that it views physical health, and mental health professionals as it views physicians? What if the individual's life is judged by a mental health professional to be at risk if he does not speak lashon hara? What if the judgement is that his life will not be at risk either way (but that he will incur psychological harm by not saying the lashon hara)? How about someone telling lashon hara to a mental health professional in the first place (assuming there's no other way for the patient to express whatever it is that he wants to get across)? What if violation of kibud av va'em is also involved? How about nibul peh? Hirhurim asurim?

I realize that much of this is oft-trodden ground (especially for some of you), questions and examples that are getting pretty tired and clichéd. I've written this partially for my own satisfaction, to get down in print the various factors that, in my mind, relate to this issue. However, I don't feel that I know the answers to the questions I have posed, and I am posting this on the blog in the hope that responses and potential ensuing discussion will be enlightening for me, and perhaps for others as well. I look forward to reading what you have to say.