Thursday, July 26, 2007

is halachic truth "historically conditioned"?

I “owe” getting back to Tosfos and the Rambam (previous post) on psak and hashkafa but haven’t had time to fully develop an approach, so I’m going to tackle things piecemeal. I want to start with a few comments on a point Dr. Marc Shapiro makes in an essay printed on the seforim blog in response to a review of his book, specifically his point #7. I do not want to make my post excessively long by quoting it in its entirety, so ayen sham.

Shaprio approvingly quotes Prof. Menachem Kellner, “Dogmas, it must be recalled, are beliefs taught as true by the Torah; is the truth taught by the Torah historically conditioned?” I don’t get it, and this seems to be a crucial point in their argument. To take one possible example: R’ Eliezer believed that the assertion that machshiri milah are doche shabbos was a Torah truth, and undoubtedly this was the halacha as practiced in his community. Today, we assume machshirei milah are not doche Shabbos. Why is Kellner not troubled in this case by halacha being “historically conditioned”? Why is he not troubled that the entire community under the leadership of R’ Eliezer may be classified as mechalilei Shabbos based on our definition of Torah truth?

A more radical example of "historical conditioning" is the recent daf yomi (Yevamos 77) regarding the debate over generations whether the derasha of “amoni v’lo amonis, moavi v’lo amonis” was true. Until Chazal determined that this halacha was rooted in a kabalah, there was room for the Bais Din of each generation to rule differently on the issue. Thus (as the Brisker Rav explains) Ploni Almoni did not question Boaz’s psak that Rus was a kosher convert, but he worried about whether a later B”D would overturn that psak and declare his grandchildren to be goyim.

In his review of Shapiro’s book, Kellner writes that Ikkarim cannot be decided as other psak halacha is because it leads to “weird” conclusions, “the weirdest of which is the idea that holding a certain belief at one time time could cause one to be excluded from the community of Israel and to lose his or her share in the world to come, while holding that belief at another time carries with it no such consequences.” Perhaps I am missing something, but I really don’t understand why that is any weirder than someone who is Sabbath observant by R’ Eliezer’s standards being considered chayav kareis (i.e. their soul cut off from Heaven) if they perform the same action in a different locale, or why it is any weirder than Rus being considered Jewish at one point in time and perhaps being labeled a goya in a different historical period. Ain lecha “exclusion from the community of Israel” gedola m’zu! Why is dogma in a different category than these questions?

16 comments:

  1. I agree with your point in general but I would reiterate my statements in a previous comment. Both halacha and hashqafa are determined by the hachmei hador and subject to the principle of "lo bashamayim hee". That is not a guarantee of absolute truth but rather a guarantee that God gives His stamp of approval to the mesorah as understood by the hachamim of each generation.

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  2. Same thing with Beis Shammai's psak that Tzoras Eilonis is a bas yibum, while according to Beis Hillel the offspring of such a union is a mamzer. Beis Hillel didn't respect Beis Shammai any less, and they certainly didn't deny Beis Shammai's right to pasken like that, they just didn't marry the affected individuals. If there were any Ploni Almonis among Beis Shammai, they would have prudently given chalitzah, and time would have borne out the wisdom of their circumspection.

    Why hasn't anyone mentioned the Brisker epigram that the Rambam holds that one who visualizes God as having corporeal form is "nebbach ahn apikores"? The Raavad, on the other hand, holds that in hashkafa, you can't be "nebbach ahn apikores." If you have justification for your error, then you're not an apikores at all.

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  3. Mike S.4:12 PM

    But there is a fundamental difference, to my mind, between the halacha of machsirei milah and ikkarei haemuna. When we decide a p'sak in mitzvot ma'asiot, say machshirei milah, we are laying down a normative prescription of action. Thus, one can understand how a question was decided differently in different locales or times before being resolved. But when it comes to required beliefs they are both prescriptive (i.e. you must believe X) and, presumably, statements of facts about objective truths. And while one might be able to understand how the prescriptive component could be historically contingent, the objective truth isn't. Thus, to allow the prescriptive norm to be historically contingent, one must be willing to detatch it from the objective truth.

    To offer a concrete example, there is a machloket in Baba Batra about who wrote the last 8 p'sukin of the Torah. The Rambam seems to pasken that it was Moshe Rabbeinu rather than Yehoshua in his ikkarim. But on what basis? The Chachmei hagemarra apparently lacked the information to resolve this dispute, and the Rambam had no information they didn't, except perhaps that a consensus had developed by his day on one side of the question. But while a vote of the Sanhedrin, and according to some, the consensus of the gedolim in any generation can decide the halacha, they cannot determine the historical truth of who first wrote those 8 p'sukim down. So one is left with two choices: either to decide that the subsequent consensus of the Rabbonim is not decisive regarding ikkarei emunah, or to decide that the consensus of Rabbonim is decisive, despite the fact it can become k'firah to believe something that may be true.

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  4. >>>But on what basis? The Chachmei hagemarra apparently lacked the information to resolve this dispute,

    Whenever you come to a psak in Rishonim where the gemara has left the issue unresolved this identical question can be raised.

    >>>they cannot determine the historical truth of who first wrote those 8 p'sukim down.

    I refer you back to the earlier post where Tos says "kayma lan" who Malachi is despite the gemara's dispute on the topic. Please explain how you learn the Tosfos...

    History is not a collection of "objective" facts, but a collection of a consensus which experts have come to agree upon. I know when George Washington lived only because that fact has near unanimous consensus among historians; short of going back in a time machine, I have no way to know the "objective" answer to that question. All evidence requires interpretation and drawing of conclusions.

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  5. I am not sure you are correct in putting halacha and hashkafah in the same boat. Halacha has its rules and in certain things that were learned from limudim in pessukim each BD came to its own conclusion and could change from one time to another. Things that were mekubal as TSBP misinai there was no disagreement. Takanot and Gezeirot were binding if they caught on forever. (this is as per rambam who is the matter of discussion here). Hashkafa Rambam is telling us there is no halacha . If logic dictates, without possibility of it being different, like corporeality there is no argument. (The fact that some fringe rishonim(r. Moshe Taku) accepted it does not change his opinion that it is illogical). Where there is no such clear cut logical definition, any shita that is based on a text and does not defy logic and reality is acceptable. I do not believe consensus will change that. Should there be just one Maimonidean left against the whole world, Yeyashar Kocho! :-)

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  6. David, all you have done is set out what you think is correct, but have not explained why. If a consensus of mesorah, even sans sources, is sufficient to establish what we do, why is it not sufficient to establish what we should believe?

    I disagree with drawing an arbitrary line in the sand.

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  7. Mike S.9:24 PM

    In mitzvot ma'asiyot, we have both an explicit passuk (for a Sanhedrin in the Beis Hamikdash) and the testimony of a Bat kol (after churban Beit Kodsheinu) in another machloket of Rabbi Eliezer, that the chachamim can determine halacha authoritatively. Howver, AFAIK there is no equivalent for historical facts (I will have to check the Tosfos later). But who first wrote the last 8 pesukkim is a fact, irrespective of consensus. To go with your George Washington analogy, if clear evidence later emerges that GW was really a collective of 7 men who were very good at disguise, the consensus would have to be overturned, much as the general consensus that the Sun revolves around the Earth or that the Earth is flat has been overturned (the latter long before Columbus by the way--what Columbus and the court geographers disputed was the Earths radius, and Columbus was wrong, but lucky).

    Thus, if we go with the Rambam and decide that belief that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the last p'sukkim is an ikkar emuna, what would we do if we ever find Yehoshua's private diary and find out otherwise? This is the problem with making beliefs about objective but unknown facts into ikkarei emunah on the basis of consensus. No doubt the Chachamim (at least up to the close of the gemarra) have the authority to do so; however, it can be done only by disconnecting the ikkar from the fact. I don't thin Rav Chaim of Volzhin ("Kel emet natan lanu Torat emet ...") would approve.

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  8. >If a consensus of mesorah, even sans sources, is sufficient to establish what we do, why is it not sufficient to establish what we should believe?

    Mike is correct but there is more to it. Halacha has its system based on how Lo Tassur is understood. When it comes to hashkafah, never mind history where Mike's point is well taken, other than Metzius Hashem we must rely on Nevuah. See MN 2:24 (and 25). The only text that we have of Nevuah is Tanach not chazal who were not neviim but unterpreters of Nevuah, nor Masorah in these matters. (Exceptions: Hil Beit Habehirah 2:2 and some other places I cannot think of now).Consensus therefore has no meaning here as it does not have a halachik grounding. You are lamdan enough to know that going after majority is not accross the board. We can only follow majority when halacha allows us or tells us to.So what is the basis for acceptable Hashkafah? read my post.

    For an insight into this thinking learn the last perek in MT Hil.shofetim.

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  9. >>>Thus, if we go with the Rambam and decide that belief that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the last p'sukkim is an ikkar emuna, what would we do if we ever find Yehoshua's private diary and find out otherwise?

    But we haven't, so lets drop the hypothetical. If I follow your argument you are basically rejecting the 8th ikar emunah because it posits a metziyus. Obviously the Rambam did not see that as a problem, so given the choice of accepting your view of what Chazal can posit vs. that of the Rambam, you will not away me to choose you. Sorry : )

    David, see the Chovos haLevavos in his into who is medayek that to tasur applies "bein dam 'dam, bein din l'din, bein nefesh l'nefesh" = taharos, mamonos, nefashos, but not belief; however, the C.H. writes that mesorah is still a valid source to authenticate Torah belief.

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  10. Bob Miller9:57 AM

    Mike S.,

    From your own point of view, which ikkarei emunah are not provisional?

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  11. Mike S.12:14 PM

    With regard to the Rambam's eighth ikkar, one can read his language in such a way as to leave the machloket in the Gemarra undecided; he is not explicit that by "He hanetuna l'Moshe rabbeinu alav ha shalom" he means to exclude the possibility that the last 8 p'ssukim were given to Yehoshua, although I believe most people think he decides the machloket.

    But this loses my larger point. The only source for ikkarei Emuna is direct Divine Revelation. So where we have psukkim, or a mesorah ish mipi ish going back to Har Sinai, we can have an ikkar emuna. Where we don't, and in the case of the last 8 p'sukkim the fact that the Gemarrah cannot resolve the issue proves we don't have such a mesorah, I don't see how a consensus view among post talmudical Rabbinic authorities can establish a fact, whose truth can, in principle, be tested, as an ikkar emunah. At least not in such a way that would render a fellow who found a hard proof to the contrary into a kofer.

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  12. >>>the fact that the Gemarrah cannot resolve the issue proves we don't have such a mesorah

    No, it proves we have contradictory mesoros, and the lack of resolution is no different than any other sugya where Rishonim may differ over which man d'amar to pasken like because the gemara does not offer a resolution. Why is this case special?

    >>>The only source for ikkarei Emuna is direct Divine Revelation.

    Do you count the mesorah transmitted by the chachmei hagemara as 'Divine Revelation'?

    I>>> don't see how a consensus view among post talmudical Rabbinic authorities can establish a fact,

    Aside from the issue of who wrote the last 8 pesukim, which you classify as a factual metziyus, am I correct in understanding you would agree with everything else I wrote regarding the other ikkarim?

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  13. Mike S.1:14 PM

    The Rav, in one of his Yahrzeit lectures, which, IIRC, is in the 1st volume of the collection under the title "Shnei sugei hamesorah," goes over in great detail, mostly based on the Rambam in Hilchot Mamrim, the difference between halachos based on a Mesorah ish mi pi Ish and one derived by Chazal based on middot she hatorah nidreshet bahem. Suffice it to say that anything which remains as a machloket undecided by the Gemarra is in the latter category. Indeed, even a machloket decided by the Gemarrah is almost always in that category. There is no case at all where there are two competing versions of a Mesorah going back to Har Sinai; machlocket among Chazal are either arguments about how to derive a halacha from psukim, or about which such derivation was ruled authoritative (claims of competing mesorah are in this category) or of a derivation being trumped by a Tanna with a Mesorah from Sinai.

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  14. Mike S.1:53 PM

    Sure, because the Torah specifically commands us to follow the Drashot of the Sanhedrin. But, as the gemarra in perek Hazahav makes clear, the fact that the Drashot are authoritative, doesn't mean that they infallibly reflect HaKaddosh Baruch Hu's intention (except in the sense that he intends us to follow them regardless) It seems to me that to be an ikkar emunah, a belief should have to be undoubtedly true. We can claim that for mesorah ish mi pi ish; not what is derived by middot she hatorah nidreshet bahem.
    This is reflected by the halacha that it is permitted for a later Sanhedrin to change something an earlier one derived from the middot, but it is forbidden to argue against a Mesorah ish mi pi ish.

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  15. >>>It seems to me that to be an ikkar emunah, a belief should have to be undoubtedly true. We can claim that for mesorah ish mi pi ish; not what is derived by middot she hatorah nidreshet bahem

    The Sefer haIkkarim objects the the Rambam's view that the Ikkarim contain items which Chazal disagreed about, including belief in mashiach (he cites the opinion of Rabbi Hillel who did not accept belief in mashiach). I assume you accept that the remazim about mashiach re not full derashos. The Rambam nonetheless does label such beliefs as ikkarim, which undermines your point. And the Sefer haIkkarim disagrees only with respect to the semantic point of what we label an ikar; he does not disagree that belief in mashiach is mandated by halacha, which further contradicts your position.

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  16. Mike S.3:19 PM

    Belief in mashiach really doesn't encounter my point since, at least before he comes, it is a belief about what Hakadosh Baruch Hu will do in the future, rather than a fact that can be observed in principle.

    And I do not dispute, and I don't see how anyone can, that halacha requires us to believe a number of things. Just the question of how the Rishonim can require a belief in a matter not settled by the Gemarra. Specifically about things that are, in principle, subject to empirical verification.

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