Tuesday, July 11, 2006

how to approach the words of a talmid chacham or tzadik

Sources on the wisdom of talmidei chachamim and tzadikim:
(1) Ramban (Baba Basra 12) in his analysis of the sugya of chacham adif m’navi writes that although prophecy called nevua is no longer extant, there still exists a lower form of prophecy given over to the chachamim.
(2) Ra’avad writes in his gloss (hil lulav ch 8) ‘hinei kamah shanim hofia ruach hakodesh b’beis medrasheinu…’, for many years ruach hakodesh has been present in our bais medrash.
(3) Divrei Chaim (not me! the real one, i.e. the Sanzer Rav) writes in a tshuvah (Y.D. 105) that a teacher who does not accept the fact that the Ohr HaChaim was written b’ruach hakodesh should be dismissed and is de facto an apikores for denying that the gedolim of the generation are endowed with ruach hakodesh.
(4) Rambam (Hil Tshuvah perek 3) counts as a kofer one who is ‘makchish magideha’, one who contradicts talmidei chachamim who are bearers of the mesorah. You can watch a video shiur of R’ M. Rozensweig, a Rosh Yeshiva at YU, where he discusses this Rambam in the context of da’as Torah and develops the theme that the continuance of tradition relies on certain talmidei chachamim the scope of whose knowledge transcends the sum total of facts they know and who embody the spirit of the Torah itself (I happened to have heard the shiur first hand).
I purposely cite R’ Rozensweig, a PhD-holding clean shaven YU Rosh Yeshiva along with the Divrei Chaim so that the forest is not lost for the trees – I am not interested in defending the precise halachic parameters of the D.C.’s tshuvah so much as reflecting on the attitude inherent in his approach. Recognizing that certain tzadikim and talmidei chachamim are endowed with perspective to make decisions that effect the Torah world even when they cannot reduce their answer to a clear formulation or intellectual argument from precedent is a view shared by the entire spectrum of orthodoxy and not particular to a marginal stream. Differences in the scope and degree to which we take this idea, or whether it should be labeled ‘ruach hakodesh’, ‘da’as torah’, or a ‘transcendent perspective’ should not obscure the fundamental agreement on principle.
When one reads or hears words of tzadikim or talmidei chachamim that at first blush seem wrong or incomprehensible, then it seems to me we owe those words a little more consideration than we might give an op-ed of the NY Times. “Afilu sichas chulin shel talmidei chachamim tz’richa Talmud” – even the mundane speech of a talmid chacham requires Talmud, i.e. investigation and insight to properly understand, kal v’chomer when these words are intended to address serious issues of torah. Sometimes it is possible to elicit clarification directly from the speaker or writer, and where not possible, we should at least keep our mind open to the possibility that the misunderstanding is due to the limitations of our own perspective and not due to a chisaron in the tzadik or talmid chacham. We certainly owe the leaders of our people the benefit of the doubt.
(Yes, I know I am probably preaching to the converted, and yes, this is in response to something particular, but l'chol hapachos the mareh mekomos are worth seeing and at least I said my 2 cents. The distortions, misunderstandings, and leitzanus spread in the same of discussing judaism is sometimes depressing - sorry, I don't know a better way to put it.)

12 comments:

  1. > Recognizing that certain tzadikim and talmidei chachamim are endowed with perspective to make decisions that effect the Torah world even when they cannot reduce their answer to a clear formulation or intellectual argument from precedent is a view shared by the entire spectrum of orthodoxy and not particular to a marginal stream. Differences in the scope and degree to which we take this idea, or whether it should be labeled ‘ruach hakodesh’, ‘da’as torah’, or a ‘transcendent perspective’ should not obscure the fundamental agreement on principle.

    There are plenty of examples of tzadikim making bad decisions, e.g. Not leaving Europe before the Holocaust. Yes, I know you have the excue of God deliberately confused them. So what good are their decisions? You never know if they are correct or if God is davkah confusing them. The principle may just be a simple one: Leaders make decisions (for better of for worse). Hopefully we have informed leaders who make good decisions. End of story. No transcendent ruach hakodesh required. And anyway, I seriously doubt the 'entire spectrum' of Orthodoxy buys into this, though maybe in your view YU is the extreme left wing edge of Orthodoxy.

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  2. Tal Benschar12:32 PM

    Chaim: Well said. (or if you prefer, gut gezukt )

    One of my most vivid memories of the many shiurim I attended from my rebbe, R Yehuda Parnes, was on a R. Akiva Eiger in Shabbos when we were learning that masechta. RAE asked a really, really tough kashya on a Tosafos -- and anyone who knows RAE knows that his kashyas can be devastating.

    After some back and forth pipul, RAE writes:

    lo yaradeti le sof daatam shel baalei ha Tosafos

    While I do not recall R. Parness' exact words, I do recall him emphasizing how important such intellectual anivus to any aspiring talmid chacham.

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  3. GH, I will address your questions in a seperate post. I just note here that you are correct that I deliberately and unapologetically exclude many groups who label themselves orthodox from my 'entire spectrum'. Many gedolim on the 'right' obviously disagreed with the Rav, but treated him as a bar-plugta, a view to be taken seriously and grappled with - the same respect is accorded many of his talmidim. The same is not true of the leaders aligned further to the left, whose views are not even considered worth addressing. Whether this amounts to a political agenda or a discrimintation of scholarly ability is obviously a point that can be debated, but it is irrelevant to the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who call themselves bnei torah DO fall somewhere within what I defined as the spectrum. By definition, those further to the left have chosen to identify with views not shared by broader segments of orthodoxy, and I do not need to server as their spokesperson nor to pretend their views are representitive of the mainstream.
    But for the meat and potatoes of what you raise, stay tuned...

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  4. I think I can fit the answer in here: GH, your comment confuses making decisions through inspiration with a transcendent view of torah with making infallible decisions. One does not equal the other. Yes, even gedolim make mistakes, not because G-d deliberately confuses anyone (that amounts to removing bechira), but because even the insight granted to them does not abjure the possibility of mistake. So the bottom line principle as you put it is correct – leaders do make decisions, for better or for worse. The difference between Torah leaders and you and I is that Torah leaders have better intuition and sense of perspective. The point is that decisions of torah sometime transcend being formulated in a mechanical positivist type fashion and spring instead from the overall sense of torah a gadol has.

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  5. Bill Selliger3:00 PM

    All of these sources (and "Sod Hashem Lirai'av" - in Sotah) deal with decisions related to Torah topics. The truth is, it's a pasuk in the Torah ("lo sasur"). However, no Rabbi can legitimately claim prophesy relating to what brand of toothpaste I should use, or if I will be matzliach should I enter a certain business deal. That is - I think - where the Great Divide is within Orthodoxy.

    Also, it's a matter of trust. I think the general populace (even the "skeptics/rationalists") would react differently if Moshe Rabbeinu told them something, than if R. Elyashiv told them the exact same thing.

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  6. I think that the problem lies not in the principle of ruach hakodesh (or even nevuah) or daas Torah existing among the tzadikim and talmidei chachamim, but rather in how to identify a true tzadik and talmid chacham. Clearly, we seem to have lost a basic understanding of what both of these essentially are and have settled for defining them strictly according to academic Torah scholarship, which IMO, is bogus and power-serving.

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  7. Bill - correct, I am talking about torah topics only, the sort of things found in seforim, be it halacha, hashkafa, etc. Asking a Rav what toothpaste to use wastes their time and yours.
    Lo tasur may be limited only to sanehdrim hagadol, though see sefer hachinuch.

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  8. >>>I think that the problem lies not in the principle of ruach hakodesh (or even nevuah) or daas Torah existing among the tzadikim and talmidei chachamim, but rather in how to identify a true tzadik and talmid chacham.

    Exactly true! I was thinking of this as well, and in case I do not get to it take a look at the Noam Elimelech at the beginning of this week's parsha who addresses this specific point.

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  9. >> take a look at the Noam Elimelech at the beginning of this week's parsha ...

    Where/who/what is this? Do you have a link to where I could take a look at it?

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  10. I will bl"n post it. You need a copy of the sefer - it's not online.

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  11. Noam Elimelech, P’ Pinchas:
    “There are two categories of people: (1) the low and wicked, who when they see a tzadik walking in innocence, attack and molest him, claiming they are simply zealous in the service of G-d which burns in their heart; (2) the righteous, who truly burn with the zealous service of G-d and attack the truly wicked. Who can indeed prove with whom lies the truth [i.e. which group is which]? The answer is that one whose words reverberate and find acceptance in the heart [of the listener] speaks truth and is a tzadik, for ‘words which come from the heart enter the heart’, leading to unity [achdus] between him and them. This is the meaning of Pinchas… b’kano es kinasi b’tocham [within them], meaning his zealousness entered their hearts and his deed was found to be just in their [the Jewish people’s] eyes.”

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