Tuesday, August 03, 2010

"They Could Say It, We Cannot"

Rabbi Natan Slifkin recently wrote an article for Hakirah, analyzing Rav Elyashiv's statement about the ability to use precedent in Rishonim for saying that Chazal could err in science. As he writes in the article:
"since these positions had been presented by towering Torah authorities of previous generations, how could they be condemned as heretical? Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Ner Israel Rabbinical College traveled to Israel in order to ask this question of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the most distinguished of the signatories in the ban, and considered by many to be the greatest halachic authority of our day. If Rav Sherira Gaon, Rambam, Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, Rav Yitzchak Lampronti, Rav Hirsch, and many others could state such views, how could these views be condemned as heretical? Rav Elyashiv’s cryptic reply was, “They could say it, we cannot.”"
Rabbi Feldman understood this as a statement that these positions have been effectively paskened out of acceptability, and are now kefirah. Rabbi Slifkin demonstrates why this is a rather difficult position to maintain, in light of various sources as to the definition of heresy; and also in light of other remarks made by Rav Elyashiv.
What, then, did Rav Elyashiv mean? After contemplating and researching this question for some time, and learning about other statements that Rav Elyashiv made to Rabbi Feldman but that were not revealed in Rabbi Feldman’s essay, I believe that I have arrived at the correct interpretation.
While Rabbi Slifkin makes some solid points about the definition of heresy in his article, these don't persuade me absolutely. After all, who says that Rav Elyashiv has considered all these sources? And even if he has, maybe he disagrees, for good reason (or even not so good reason)? For example, Rav Tzadok Hakohen (in sefer Hazichronos) maintains that those who deny the authenticity of kabbalah nowadays are apikorsim:
וכבר מפורסם אצל כל ישראל דברי חז"ל וכל קדושים מחכמי האמת, עניני מעשה מרכבה מה הם. [ואין צורך להשיב כאן על דברי המתפלספים הקדמונים, בפירוש מעשה מרכבה (גם כן) שהוא בהשגת חקירות הפילוסופים בחכמת הטבע ושלאחר הטבע, שכבר תמהו עליהם חכמי הדורות דאם כן כבר נגלו לקטני אומות העולם המסתכלים בספרי חכמיהם, יותר ממה שנתגלה לגדולי הנביאים ברמזים וחידות: ואין צורך להאריך מזה לכשרי ישראל עתה שנתפרסמה חכמת האמת בעולם, מוסכם בפי כל חכמי ישראל האמיתים. וכל הכופר בה הוא מכלל האפיקורסים, וכמו שיתבאר במצות לא תסור, וכמו שכתב בתשובות הב"ח הישנות (סימן ה') דהמלעיג על דברי חכמים ומדבר דופי על חכמת הקבלה, שהיא מקור התורה ועיקרה וכולה יראת שמים, פשיטא דאין לך מזלזל בדברי חכמים גדול מזה שחייב נידוי, עיין שם]: 

The proof from other statements of Rav Elyashiv I find much more persuasive, as to determining Rav Elyashiv's intent or non-intent. If he stated elsewhere that these views are not kefirah, then it is hard to understand how he could maintain that they have indeed been paskened to be kefirah.

Let me pause for a moment here and note the utter absurdity of having to guess at Rav Elyashiv's meaning. There are plenty of disputes throughout the ages of Sages giving two interpretations to an statement of an earlier Sage. Rashi and Tosafot argue on the meaning of a gemara. But here we have two Rabbis arguing about the meaning of a statement from someone who is alive! Let him clarify! But this is a regular problem of access to the gedolim, and different ways of interpreting their words.

At any rate, here is Rabbi Slifkin's explanation, from the end of the article -- but read the whole article first, so you will see why this is so, or at least a likely explanation:
I do greatly respect his opinion, and I believe that I am acting consistently with it. “They can say it”—Rambam, Rav Hirsch, and all those of the rationalist school can adopt this approach to Torah, which is not being categorically condemned as being beyond the pale, and which may indeed be appropriate for some people—“but we cannot”—we in the Charedi community, which attributes paramount importance to unquestioning allegiance to authority, cannot. Any other interpretation of Rav Elyashiv’s words is, in my opinion, a misunderstanding that is not only insulting to the Torah giants of the past, but also sets a dangerous precedent for future “halachic rulings” in matters of belief. 
I am not so sure that Rav Elyashiv had in mind "all those of the rationalist school" in his "they". Indeed, I wonder if he even is very aware of a present day frum rationalist school. It could well be that he thinks that there are chareidim, and then there are Modern Orthodox who if they do teshuva, could become Orthodox religious Jews.

To cite Rabbi Slifkin on the matter, in a post about how one man's maverick is another man's bore:
A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with a certain Rav. This Rav is a tremendous talmid chacham with tremendous breadth of thought, but he is basically in the charedi world. He didn't object to any specific view of mine, but he criticized me for the totality of them. He said to me, "Look, it's okay for a person to have one or two radical views, but why do you have to have so many?" The world being billions of years old, evolution, no global flood, Chazal being wrong about spontaneous generation, Moshe not being ten cubits tall, Rashi being a corporealist, etc., etc., etc. Why do I have to always be a radical?

My response was that in the intellectual circles into which I was (at that time) moving towards - frum academics and frum people who subscribe to their rationalist approach - nothing that I say is remotely radical. All the aforementioned views are completely normative. In fact, in these circles, I am considered as a person who has not contributed any original or interesting ideas. 

It was interesting to see how taken aback he was.
If so, I wonder if Rav Elyashiv is even aware that there is a present-day "they" to speak of, such that he could speak of "all those of the rationalist school." (Of course, this does not discount the idea that his formulation and intent -- for chareidi society, due to sociological impact -- leaves open the possibility for such rationalists as in fact exist.)

However, I must say that that is not how I read Rav Elyashiv's statement at all. Rather, for me, it called to mind this gemara in Bava Metzia 83b:
R. Eleazar, son of R. Simeon, was accordingly sent for, and he proceeded to arrest the thieves. Thereupon R. Joshua, son of Karhah, sent word to him, 'Vinegar, son of wine! How long will you deliver up the people of our God for slaughter!' Back came the reply: 'I weed out thorns from the vineyard.' Whereupon R. Joshua retorted: 'Let the owner of the vineyard himself [God] come and weed out the thorns.'
One day a fuller met him, and dubbed him: 'Vinegar, son of wine.' Said the Rabbi to himself, 'Since he is so insolent, he is certainly a culprit.' So he gave the order to his attendant: 'Arrest him! Arrest him!'
Thus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha could say it -- that Rabbi Eleazar beRabbi Shimon was chometz ben yayin. But the fuller could not. Why? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha was of sufficient caliber that he could say this, and it was legitimate criticism of a colleague (where that colleague would disagree). But the fuller was being insolent.

(Indeed, it reminds me somewhat of a passage I just read in Richard Wright's American Hunger, when he was confronted for reading non-Communist books:

Lenin could read these bourgeois books -- he could not.)

I would guess that Rav Elyashiv was engaging in pious humility, on his own behalf and on behalf of all of (chareidi?) Jewry. After all, he believes in yeridas haDoros. Rav Saadia Gaon could say such a thing. The Rambam could say such a thing. Even Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch could say such a thing. They were, after all, Gedolim of previous generations.

But how could we -- present day Jewry -- say such a thing? This is chutzpah! It indicates a lack of respect for Chazal, to think that we know better than them. And don't cite me this precedent, because for them, it was not chutzpah (so much) for them. For the Geonim and Rishonim themselves were elevated. For us to come up with this innovation on our own and say Chazal were wrong -- well, surely there is a lack of respect involved in this, even though we are saying precisely the same thing.

One could answer Rav Elyashiv that it is not we who are innovating this and saying this. Rather, we are following our well-established derech. Perhaps we are applying it to new cases, but it is not that we are coming up with a radical solution entirely by ourselves and then justifying ourselves by finding obscure Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim who said something similar or identical. Rather, this was something we learned from our rabbeim, and is not a chiddush. (For example, I personally heard from Rav Moshe Tendler that the one error Chazal made was saying yesh chochma bagoyim taamin.) I cited Rabbi Slifkin making this point above -- nothing he was saying was remotely radical. Rather, it was completely normative in certain circles -- indeed, somewhat boring. Rav Elyashiv might not have realized this, just as that rav with whom Rabbi Slifkin was conversing did not realize this.

If this is indeed the intent of Rav Elyashiv's cryptic statement, then it is not so clear that we can claim to be following in his path, and be acting consistently with it. However, we might assert this by explaining that our metzius differs from that assumed by Rav Elyashiv, in that we are not innovating and thus demonstrating lack of respect for Chazal. Further, if he maintains that one may not follow this derech regardless then, with all due respect, we need not follow him. He is not my rebbe. He is a very knowledgeable talmid chacham but one who follows a different derech. I don't follow him about going to college; I don't follow him in the value of Torah UMaddah. (Rather, I follow my own teachers in this matter.) Indeed, without valuing maddah, I would guess that he does not really know the extent of the difficulties involved in the intersection of Torah and science. (Consider how his son-in-law approached the question of whether Jews have more teeth than gentiles.) I would guess that for him, a young earth is much less problematic; as is spontaneous generation; or the possibility that bats lay eggs; or that tataah gavar; or that the brain produces semen. Nor is he likely aware of the science contemporary to Chazal asserting the same things, making allegorical explanations much less likely. When he says "we cannot", there is not such a problem and there are a number of plausible alternatives. Rav Elyashiv can thus say this. We cannot, nor should we.


S. said...

>I personally heard from Rav Moshe Tendler that the one error Chazal made was saying yesh chochma bagoyim taamin.

What did he mean by this? Because "no one" believe it?

joshwaxman said...

i understood it as a melitza to mean that where chazal were wrong in science, it was because of relying on contemporary science from the gentiles. such that we shouldn't consider it a deficiency in chazal. therefore, when Chazal said אם יאמר לך אדם יש חכמה בגוים תאמן, they were incorrect because in fact there was no chochma to the contemporary gentiles. i think it was a humorous and idiomatic statement.

i'm not sure what you are asking, though...

Yosef Greenberg said...

Nice analysis. I think its important to reiterate, (like you did,) that the end goal is not that he agrees or doesn't agree on the matter. Rather on the exact position and reasoning behind each belief.

Tommy said...

One could answer Rav Elyashiv that it is not we who are innovating this and saying this. Rather, we are following our well-established derech ...

Your purposed answer sounds rather reminiscent, to me, of the view of R. Ya'aqov ben Efra'im( a contemporary of R. Sa'adya Ga'on), in the controversy over accepting the Halakhaic authority of the Babylonian academies( and the Talmud Bavli) in Eres Yisra'el. He was reported to have claimed that, just as there are( or, at least, were at that time) two equally legitimate Masorot of reading the Torah, of Bavel and of Eres Yisra'el, so are there two Masorot of Halakha, of Bavel and of Eres Yisra'el, which are both equally legitimate Derakhim in Avodat ha'El, and neither one should be imposed upon the followers of the other.

Jenny said...

Well reasoned, as always.

A bit off topic - the absurdity that you point out of having to decipher a living person's words, when the normal thing would just be to go and ask him what he meant, as gone so far that it doesn't even seem strange to anyone to sit and argue about his opinion. Worse than that is the fact that the "access to gedolim" affects matters of halakha as well - it's an embarrassment that someone of R' Belsky's stature was turned away without being able to question RYSE's (purported?) opinion regarding the latest halakhic controversy. Presumably, when dealing with issues that are nuanced and complicated (all of them?), the fact that a gadol's words are in the first place cryptic, and then come through several conduits before reaching the ears of the people is not an ideal situation.

Back to the topic - while the explanation you propose for RYSE's statement is certainly the simplest, I think it runs into problems - Yes, the gedolim of previous generations were able to hold of these opinions, yet we cannot speculate and add to the "rationalist" school of thought, as we are not as great as they. But what if someone simply says, I think the Rambam was right? Or R' Hirsch? And I'm going to follow his philosophy and live my life accordingly. Would that be problematic? After all, there's no innovation on his part - he's simply following the words of people who were allowed to say such things.

Your point about yeridas hadoros is well taken. For those of us in the MO community whose view of YHD doesn't match up with the Hardei outlook, there's no issue of following RYSE's opinion, as it doesn't make any sense without his premises.

FYI - an opinion of "paskening" against earlier hashkafic opinions is not unique to the Hardi world - I once heard R Michael Rosensweig, hardly someone who can be defined as "Haredi", make the same point regarding points of view espoused by legitimate figures in the past, and are now considered kfira.

Finally, I'm not sure of the legitimacy of Rabbi Slifkin's premise. I have a hunch that had RYSE been around during the time of the Rambam, he'd have been arguing forcefully against his philosophical opinions, right along with the Rashba. The fact that someone is a legitimate historical figure based on part of his works, does not mean that his philosophy is correct, even for his time. I don't know how to square that with "they could say it", but if I had to bet, I'd think that RYSE wouldn't have approved of such thought, even by the great figures.

Nosson Gestetner said...

Although it is bitter to admit, one would tend to agree with you over R'Elyashiv...

S. said...

Josh, thanks for that explanation. It makes sense now; when I first read it I took it to mean that "Chazal erred in saying that yesh chochma bagoyim taamin, because the bottom line is that 'the velt' doesn't see it, doesn't believe it. Must be that Chazal were wrong."

I see now what he's saying, although I think even though he was probably trying to be cute, it smacks of the very disrespect toward the ancients which causes people to think that either Chazal were right about everything, or they were terribly foolish, and since the latter is not an option the former must be correct. I hope Rabbi Tendler doesn't think that the ancients were terribly foolish since they failed to anticipate 20th century science.

S. said...

>Back to the topic - while the explanation you propose for RYSE's statement is certainly the simplest, I think it runs into problems - Yes, the gedolim of previous generations were able to hold of these opinions, yet we cannot speculate and add to the "rationalist" school of thought, as we are not as great as they. But what if someone simply says, I think the Rambam was right? Or R' Hirsch? And I'm going to follow his philosophy and live my life accordingly. Would that be problematic? After all, there's no innovation on his part - he's simply following the words of people who were allowed to say such things.

In Chareidi hashkafah you're taught that:

1. There is a consensus in matters Jewish.

2. Your teachers tell you what the consensus is - and they learned it from their teachers/ continue to learn it from Daas Torah of the Gedolim.

You aren't supposed to break the chain.

joshwaxman said...

indeed. while he might say one can rely on such a daas yachid in some halachic matter, because you believe it correct, in terms of adopting a hashkafic position, there is the idea of breaking the chain.

and more than that, it is adopting a daas yachid which is "disrespectful" to Chazal. they could say this, but we cannot, just as the fuller could not say what rabbi yehoshua ben korcha said.


S. said...

I get the impression that there's also this idea of "academic freedom," which allows certain people of proven stature some leeway to experiment with thought, offbeat pesak, etc. If it doesn't stick, so to speak, then it's ipso facto a failed experiment. Thus, it doesn't really matter if a particular godol went outside the box a little bit. Either the box grew in that direction, or it didn't.

zach said...

>I personally heard from Rav Moshe Tendler that the one error Chazal made was saying yesh chochma bagoyim taamin.

Maybe he meant that the error of Chazal was a mistake in judgment - that this shouldn't have been publicized because yidden will start to RELY on the gentile sages?

Anonymous said...

Eh? That's sort of the opposite of Rabbi Tendeler's weltanschauung.

He may be a bad scientist, he may be a good scientist, but he certainly has pretensions of being a scientist. The interpretation you espouse is straight up anti-Torah u-Madda hashkafah, which he certainly does not share.

joshwaxman said...

to clarify, since i didn't only hear the single statement but the context in which the statement was issued:

the context was one instance in which Chazal were saying something scientifically incorrect. he then said this statement, in order to show that we should not blame Chazal for the error, but that they just propagated the error made by the gentile scientists. he also said it in jest, as a sort of "cute" formulation.

he was not considering that statement alone, or its impact on yidden.

alas, i should have been clearer in my post, when i cited him. he is quite clearly in the rationalist camp.



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