Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Must we accept the ridiculous, in both halacha and hashkafa?

Over at Divrei Chaim, Chaim B. is arguing once again that belief is the same as halacha, and that one is therefore obligated to accept consensus, rather than what makes sense, and picking and choosing amongst shitot which make sense. One wouldn't simply choose between Shach and Taz based on which is the most persuasive. And similarly for hashkafa, and that this is basic.

One can make distinctions between the two -- there are sources, previously discussed, for making such a distinction --and indeed, how does he know that it is not my masorah to make distinctions between the two? But even if there were not such a distinction, who says that one should not do this for halacha as well? Of course, this is for someone who is a qualified posek, but such a person who is worthy and capable of considering the question is supposed to consider it, according to some very prominent opinions. He may think all he wants that in matters of hashkafah, I am not a bar hachi to put forth my own position -- for example, that it is not true that all extinct animals are in hiding, or that it is not true that Jews have a different number of teeth than gentiles, but I respectfully disagree. Indeed, in several instances involving modern "consensus", the chareidi consensus is not just restricted to chareidim, but it is based on a willfull ignorance of modern science.

A little while back, on Hirhurim, I engaged in a debate about ridiculous halachic opinions, and whether one (of course, one who was sufficiently qualified) was able to pass judgement over whether a halchic idea was ridiculous. An example was the Kaf HaChaim saying that one could not say the blessing on the trees on Shabbos, because kabbalistically, he is separating off klipos, which is Borer. The Chasam Sofer said it was an improper conflating of two areas, halacha and kabbalah. And indeed, they are mere homonyms, but separating off klipos is not doing this in the physical realm and is entirely separate from what Chazal intended with the Biblical prohibition of Borer. Similarly, it seems mighty strange to claim that reflecting on different theories and arguments, and choosing among them, should be considered Borer. That is not what they meant, and it seems more than a bit ridiculous.

Someone frum in the comment section there offered a challenge that all of halacha is ridiculous, so how can we choose to label any halachic position ridiculous. Personally, I don't think that all of halacha is ridiculous, and we argued that out, but I came up with a few examples of nonsense which I thought that anyone would agree was utter nonsense. Thus, a reductio ad absurdum to challenge my disputant's "Credo quia absurdum".

My examples:
(1) if someone greeted a woman (thus being *shoel* in her shalom) and she was subsequently raped (*ones*) by another person, he have to pay the 50 shekel to her father, because a Shoel is chayav in Ones. But if he had his Baal idols with him when he greeted her, he would be exempt, because it is a case of Baalav Imo.

(2) If one reads a brayta on Shabbos, he has to read it in full, until the end of the seifa, or else it would be a case of Pesik Reisha.

(3) One is forbidden from sending his amputated leg-bone to the Soviet Union, because "Ain adam meisim atzmo Russia."

(4) If two people are hiding inside a bull-costume made of an actual bull, one may not pull aside the costume to reveal their faces while they are not in the course of walking, because it is "megaleh panim batora shelo kehalacha."
and LamedZayin helped out with other examples:
One who is in doubt as to whether his requirement to make a blessing on bread was satisfied by listening to another person's blessing must rely on the other person's recollection and not his own, since "hamotzi ma'chaveiro alav haraya."

It is forbidden to apply foundation cream to another person's face in public since "hamalbin p'nei chaveiro b'rabim ein lo cheilek ba'olam ha'baa".

These were examples of using homonyms, such that it was a clear misapplication of one category to another.

When pressed whether he would agree that these hypotheticals were ridiculous, and if so, how he would distinguish between these and other statements others were labelling ridiculous, if one could not pass judgement, my disputant replied:
The answer to your hypothetical would be it depends on who is saying it.
Of course, he seemed to restrict this to where Chazal said it. At any rate, I don't think that one should accept the obviously silly and untrue even in the realm of halacha.

In terms of halacha though, at least there is the halachic process in place, such that the position, whether true or false, is the "correct" conclusion of the system. But in many matters of hashkafah or hilchos de'os, we are dealing with reality. There is a distinction between reality and halacha. For example, in halacha one can say elu veElu. But in terms of history, the gemara itself asks by the instance of the Pilegesh BeGiveah that only one can be true, and the other must be false. That they were able to resolve it in that particular case was to the credit of the Rabbinic figure involved, but the strong implication is that it does not apply to narrative aggadah in general -- or else it would not be to his particular credit here.

We cannot "pasken" reality. When the Rambam saw the Mishnah that spoke of two children born, the first via C-section and a later child in the normal way, which conflicted with the reality (up until his time) that a woman would die as a result of a C-section, he did not say that we must believe that women do not always or regularly die as a result of C-sections. Instead, he reinterpreted the Mishnah in a way to make it accord with his perceived reality. Centuries later, Rav Moshe Feinstein did not say, based on the Rambam, that women never survive C-sections. He acknowledged reality that women in his day were surviving it, and concluded that this was a case of nishtaneh hateva. But he did not deny reality. And if nishtaneh hateva were not an established excuse, I don't believe he would have shut his eyes to reality.

Rav Yaakov Kaminetzsky watched the moon landing on TV, he did so to determine whether the Rambam was correct that the moon was of a different, non-substantial material. When Neil Armstrong touched foot on the moon, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzsky concluded that Chazal, including the Rambam, must have been wrong. (He likely didn't know that this was drawn from Aristotle, not Chazal in particular, and had been disproven centuries earlier based on optics.) He did not say that we must not believe our own eyes and our own seichel. In contrast, the Satmar Rebbe believed the moon landing must have been faked.

While this story about Rav Kaminetzsky was printed in the first copy of the sefer, it was apparently blanked out in the next printing, and in the third, even the gap was missing. I am not certain whether the "problem" was the TV watching or the claim that Chazal were wrong.

When Rav Shamshon Refael Hirsch explained that some statements of Chazal were based on contemporary science, he did not instead simply decide to believe that Chazal were right. The rabbinic consensus of Chazal did not cause him to deny reality and to choose to believe that Chazal were correct in these scientific matters. To then turn around and say that I cannot follow him in this hashkafic assertion because I am not a Yekke would seem to be against the Rationalist position, and thus is begging the question. One may not be a rationalist because one may not be a rationalist in epistemology, but must instead follow consensus and masorah.

The point is that when it comes to reality, and truth vs. falsehood, to claim that one must follow and believe "consensus" as opposed to what is true is somewhat upsetting. One can claim this, but then the religion itself is false.

In my particular case, much (though not all) of my "rationalist" perspective is one I did grow up with, and one I absorbed from certain of my teachers. But it bothers me that he casts this as a matter of picking and choosing amongst Rishonim and Acharonim, and that such is illegitimate. I believe what I believe because I think it is True, not because I can find some Rishon or Acharon to support it. That various Rishonim or Acharonim do support it is just icing on the cake.

I make other related points in the comment thread there. Check it out.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I think your arguments on this issue are well stated and compelling.

joshwaxman said...


Anonymous said...

Do you have any proof for what you say about the Seforim of R. Yaakov Kamenetsky? Which seforim are you referring to?

joshwaxman said...

sure; i got it from this blog.

the sefer was apparently Emet leYaakov.

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

looking at it again, it is quite possible that the problem which caused the story to be removed was the TV watching rather than the stating the Rambam made an error.


Akiva said...

Well stated. Unfortunately I think the question has become not "must we accept", but worse "must we BELIEVE". People who write or try to reconcile statements from chazal inconsistent with discovered details of reality are regularly classified as kofrim. This position is pervading the education system to the extent that practical educational subjects are now being avoided or taught with the chazal science-reality of the distant past statements - or being taught with the since discovered reality and then scoffed at with a "but we know that's not accurate because...insert statement of chazal from 1,900 years ago here".

So if my son comes home from a health lesson on teeth, he might say "we learned about teeth today, and also how goyishe science doesn't realize that goyim have more teeth than yidden". Then I'm faced with a difficult discussion that a child is ill prepared to handle.

I'd like to say this is theoretical and exaggerated, but in a real discussion a few years ago with a middle school yeshiva teacher preparing to take the class on a trip to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, the teacher requested me to go because she (girls class) could think of no way to reconcile the dinosaur bones and stuffed mammoths with a Torah position - yet would be faced with the reality of being in front of them with the class.

Of course, teens faced with reality completely inconsistent with religion turn at some point and say 'hypocritical and lies' and walk away from it. We either reconcile it, which Judaism has been doing just fine for generations, or turn into a completely faith based reality structure like certain forms of Xianity - which have a limited survival period.

Chaval, the second position seems to be holding sway at the moment.

Yosef Greenberg said...

LOL :)

I does seem that Halachah does work within standard reasoning. Once you accept the 13 middos. (Not Ikkarim. :) )

Yosef Greenberg said...


Interestingly. I recently saw mention of R" Yaakov Kamenetzky watching the moon landing in Mishpacha. It was in a sidebar on their cover feature on 40 years to the mood landing.

It was a direct quote of a talmin, IIRC.


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