Thursday, January 29, 2009

emunas chachamim and pilpul talmidim

A few thoughts on the R' Ahron Shechter video discussing whether it is appropriate to inquire into ma'aseh braishis. As by BIL pointed out elsewhere, the comments made by R" Shechter echo the Maharal in his intro to Gevuros Hashem where he writes that the it is not for us to inquire into the process of creation. The fact a contemporary Rosh Yeshiva espouses such a position should at least give someone pause before taking the opposing view, kal v'chomer if that R"Y is echoing Maharal. Sadly, from what I read of these issues elsewhere, the speeding train that rushes to dismiss Chazal in light of science does not pause for anyone.

The Seridei Eish, a posek who may have been more open to embracing modernity, has an interesting tshuvah (I:113) where he points out that two of the necessary ingredients for kinyan Torah seem contradictory. These two traits are emunas chachamim and pilpul chaveirim. The Seridei Eish writes that only by trusting in the correctness of Chazal, emunas chachamim, will one be motivated to struggle to uncover the meaning in Chazal even where their teachings appear to contradict other disciplines or one's own strongly held opinion. On the other hand, blind trust and obedience without thought and investigation, without pilpul, leaves one with superficial understanding that does not reflect or capture the deep truths of Torah. A balance is needed. Many of those who champion scientific truth as superior to the knowledge of Chazal in my opinion err by giving far too much weight to pilpul and far too little weight to emunas chachamim.

The greatest error of many who seek to resolve contradictions between science or history and Torah is misframing of the question. The question to be asked is NOT whether espousing a certain belief or interpretation makes on a heretic or contradicts whatever list of ikkarim one subscribes to (belief in 13 ikkarim can no longer to be taken for granted, as some people feel that they can say kim li like some other list in Rishonim). One can concoct many wonderful versions of Judaism that keep to 613 mitzvos and are a hodge-podge of ideas and hashkafos that are built on a diyuk in a Rishon here and a shita of an Acharon there, etc. but which bear no resemblance to the dogma and practice of Jews in any community in our history. It's not the negation of cardinal belief which is the test of Torah true hashkafa. The real test is whether the conclusions confirm with the pattern of belief which our mesorah and people have held dear for generations. So what if there is an odd R' Avraham ben haRambam or a Pachad Yitzchak out there in our literature if there is a strong mesorah that runs contrary to these views?

But who is to judge what mesorah consists of? I honestly don't see what the confusion is in this regard. R' Akiva Eiger is an acharon; were I to fomulate an opinion on an issue, I too would be an "acharon" -- does anyone in their right mind think my opinion is worth 2 cents compared with R' Akiva Eiger's shikul hada'as, no matter how many ra'ayos I have or proofs to my position? Anyone who has sat in a beis medrash knows that even to have such a hava amina is ridiculous. When R' Baruch Ber would say shiur and answer up a R' Akiva Eiger he would say that his shiur is just a hava amina of R' Akiva Eiger but should not be taken as an absolute conclusion because R' Akiva Eiger said otherwise. Rav Solovetichik (Shiurim l'Zecher Aba Mori, Two Types of Mesorah) taught that there are certain great chachami hador who are ba'alei mesorah. They are not just poskim who decide what is permitted or prohibited, but they are responsible for setting the tone and tenor of Judaism and passing it to the next generation of leaders. R' Akiva Eiger, the Ktzos, R' Chaim Brisker -- these are ba'alei mesorah not just because of an insightful particular tshuvah or chiddush, but because they established what Jewish tradition in all its flavor means and represents. That line of ba'alei mesorah continues to our own day. Whether it is R' Elyashiv, R' Chaim Kanievsky, etc., there are people who klal yisrael look to as the flagbearers of tradition.

What troubles me is that many many of the comments on this issue are not along the lines of Moshe emes and Chazal are emes but in this one detail we have a kashe and need to rely on a da'as yachid or miyut opinion. Rather, many of those who comment asssume 1) a free-for-all attitude is acceptable in areas of hashkafa where psak in not binding; 2) if it doesn't violate an ikkar emunah, then anything goes; 3) scientific evidence always trumps belief. At least these folks are honest. They don't need a Pachad Yitzchak or a R' Avraham ben haRambam. They don't need any achronim or Rishonim. The hold that mesorah is simply not a bar plugta with modern science.

If I were to insist on washing netilas yadayim before kiddush on Friday night because I insist that the Rama is right no matter what anyone else tells me and despite centuries on minhag to the contrary in most Jewish families (Yekkes excluded), kulei alma lo pligi that I have crossed a line in psak halacha and am being poreitz geder on minhagim. But if I go ahead an insist on uprooting a tenet of mesorah that contradicts what I take to be empirical evidence, right down to the assumption that the text of Torah was given to Moshe on Sinai, then that is "just" hashkafa there is no problem. Olam hafuch ra'isi when a detail in netilas yadayim carries more weight than fundemental beliefs.

I am fully aware of the point Michael Collins makes in his book The Language of G-d that by denying scientific fact we place greater obstacles in the way of faith and reduce belief to superstition. But I am also aware of the fact that Collins as a non-Jew has no mesorah or concept of emunas chachamim with which to contend. He may spin his Bible any way he pleases; we do not have the same flexibility.

So what do I propose to do with scientific or historical evidence that overturns mesorah or belief? Answer: I don't have answers for everything, but I can live with those kashes. Read up on Keats' negative capability. There are mysteries and unexplained phenomena in science and history, yet a scientist will stick with a theory that has most of the evidence in its favor and live with those questions until further discovery resolves them or the theory is changed. The mesorah is the best theory we have to explain reality.

Bottom line: instead of sweeping statements that reject ikkarei emunah and posit new ideas about mesorah that are quite simply wrong, I would rather keep the "old" system and use a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to address these issues. Admittedly the former approach in one fell swoop resolves all problems in these areas, but ironically that one feel swoop destroys the very fabric of mesorah which it purports to defend.


  1. This is all true and good and I agree with everything you wrote. There are at least two issues, however, which in my mind seriously create the backlash in the other direction.

    One is that those who today claim to carry the mesorah allow neither a sledgehammer, nor a scalpel to deal with the issues that have arisen (and hakol modim -- or at least I assume you would be modeh -- that however you deal with them, there are issues to deal with). What is bothering people and driving them to get the sledgehammer is that for too much of the Torah world there is no balance at all. All emunah and no pilpul. That doesn't work either and often if not always leads to a distortion of the amito shel Torah.

    The other problem is that even those who claim to be holding steadfast to the mesorah themselves are mechadesh early and often -- in the name of maintaining the mesorah. Today we see chumros that previous generations never heard of -- both in hashkafa and halacha. And because it is a chumra (without regard to the all-too-true axiom that every chumra on some level is asi lidei kula), it is accepted as mesorah, in the name of the mesorah -- even when the chidush/chumra is chadashim mekarov ba'u, lo se'arum avoseichem. Thus, even in a world where you say the mesorah/chidush balance should favor the mesorah side, there is plenty of chidush being presented as mesorah. THAT is the olam hafuch rai'si.

  2. I appreciate your comments and concerns, but would say the following:

    >>>those who today claim to carry the mesorah

    Who exactly do you mean? If you mean some nobody in Bnei Brak or Lakewood who publishes a sefer, then those are not ba'alei mesorah, which is who I referred to. If you mean the likes of R' Ch. Kanievsky, then I would ask for examples of where you think he has gone beyond previous doros.

    Secondly, there is a time and place for migdar milsa as well. Do you expect gedolim to use a scalpel when the very foundations of yahadus are at stake?

    The reality is that once the sledgehammer is drawn, the other side responds with a bigger sledgehammer, and we have a self-reinforcing set of escalating claims and rhetoric. That is indeed a serious problem.

    Thirdly, I would ask you: what gadol b'yisrael alive today of the stature of R' Elyashiv, R' Ch Kanievsky, u'k'domeh, is willing to go on record as saying b'peh malei that human beings evolved from apes? As far as I know even R' Hershel Shechter, R' Willig, etc., gedolim of the "left" (for lack of a better way to put it) have never said such a thing. So do we just throw out this whole idea of ba'alei mesorah and say ani b'shrirus libi eileach, or maybe we need to consider that if bigger minds than our own nearly unanimously agree that certain ideas are wrong, then maybe they are wrong? It's an either/or choice - I don't see a third option here.

  3. >>>chadashim mekarov ba'u

    The Marcheshes in his intro uses these exact words to describe the new fangled derech halimud which has overrun the world of the beis medrash which he rejects in favor of "derech kvusha u'selula m'raboseinu kadma'ei u'bas'raei".

    So should we toss out Brisker lomdus and chiddushim (both in halacha and hashkafa) as an intrusion on the mesorah of limud hatorah?

    Some would say history has decided otherwise. I would say that the mesorah has decided otherwise.

    There is no simple mechanism to determine what is valid chiddush and what is beyond the pale other than to trust the process of mesorah and the ba'alei mesorah.

    (I do not mean to suggest that your comment suggsted otherwise; i am just adding this as a clarification of what I wrote.)

  4. anon11:17 PM


    I hear everything you are saying and (probably like most people), I feel like I am caught in the middle between the extremes. I will add the following two points -- given that the specific maaseh bereishis example was mentioned. First, a talmid chacham who has gone through shas a number of times and who is also an accomplished scientist has pointed out to me and others that the approach that the literal, pashut pshat of bereishis is the most authentic flies in the face of the pashut pshat of the mishnah of chagigah and other maamarei chazal that speak of the secrets of maaseh bereishis. We wouldn't be told not to learn it if all that was happenning was what we learned in kingdergarden. So when those who carry the mesorah quote in the name of the gedolei ha-dor (and even if RElyashiv or RCK hasn't said these things, it is regularly quoted in their name -- and when not corrected, it rightly or wrongly creates issues about the credibility of the baalei mesorah), that those who believe X or Y about maaseh bereishis are kofrim because it is against our ikarim, there is more than a little hubris in throwing others into the kofer pile for saying that bereishis is not jsut the pashut pshat of chumah, when that is basically the pshat of chazal have taught us that the pshat of the chumash is not really what's going on.

    I'm not saying I have the answers or even the hava amina of a hava amina of working through any of the issues and I think your point about dealing with uncertainty is very well taken -- but I think that message needs to be heard on both sides. The "right" (for lack of a better term) do not claim that they don't know -- they just claim that the science is wrong or fake, etc, and the pashut pshat of the chumash is right. That is the part that can be offensive. They can say that you can't reject Torah misinai etc on the basis of science -- but don't claim to have a monopoly on what the Torah says and means when chazal tell us it is not so pashut.(Compounded with the fact when you have gedolei olam who support the science and being consistnet with the Torah -- but that is a different issue). On the not accepting uncertainty etc, hu ha-din on historical revisionism on points that they don't like. An ikkar of our mesorah that we all agree on is emes -- and when people play fast and loose with emes in the name the mesorah, things get messy.

    The other point -- while I'm not interested in reliving or analyzing the whole slifken saga (it's not my thing at all) -- this much is true: there were gedolim from the right wing world who agreed with much substance of what was said, only to retract when "things" happenned. Again I have no interest in revisiting who said what when and who was right and who was wrong (largely because I don't know) -- but too often what is or is not quoted as being or not being kefirah in the name of the gedolim is often reversed for what seems to be less than good reasons. And if you respond that the issue here is not about the substance of the what the gedolim are saying but just in the communication to the masses -- well, isn't that communication exactly what mesorah is? If the communication is not working, then we have a problem with the mesorah.

    Again, I basically agree with everything you wrote. And as with your example of brisker lomdus, the mesorah here too will decide what is acceptable and what is not. But no great advance in halacha or hashkafa (many of which were positive and many of which are accepted as normative today) came to be without shifting the balance slightly to chidush/pilpul for just a little bit.

  5. I agree with the substance of everything you wrote except for the first part. R' Shechter/Maharal, which is what I was commenting on, do not say that ma'aseh braishis is to be understood the way a 6 year old understands chumash -- precisely the opposite. They say that precisely because the parsha is so deep, we cannot fathom its mystery and should make no attempt to do so. We are commanded to live in a state of negative capability.

    Why do so many Orthodox bretheren of ours have such a problem with that message?

  6. Anonymous12:28 PM

    Great post !
    The issue on hand is not what do we do when chazal say something and Mr PHD says something else.
    The issue is what do we tell the thousands of yidden that never heard of Reb Boruch Ber.
    The goal is to keep the mesorah going and if telling frum people that study science and value science a "favarfena" R Avraham Ben Harambam etc. to show them that yes there are balay Mesorah that they can hang your hat on, we must do so.Saying to a crowd of collga students that "we dont care about what science says" will be a big put off .It might be the correct Mehalech in Chaim Berlin and Lakewood Cheder etc. But most yidden dont go there there
    The real Balay Mesorah understood the concept of Ais Lasos Lashem

  7. Issues aside, but was it really your impression that Rav Schechter sounded like a Chacham in that video?

    In other words, was it your impression that were someone to have read his transcribed comments, without knowing whom they came from, that even a moderately intelligent person would remark, "Hmm. This speaker sounds like a very wise person to me. I'd love to have the opportunity to discuss with him some other intellectual quandries that I have!"

  8. This is a great post!

    The commenters here seem to only manage one objection: the process of the ban itself and the stifling of valid questions.
    But Slifkin's radical approach to finding the answers just can't be taken seriously by anyone who has respect for what Klal Yisrael has believed for millenia.
    That's a big change from the way things were a year or two ago.

  9. Enjoyed your post. The only thing I would disagree with is this comment:
    >> does anyone in their right mind think my opinion is worth 2 cents compared with R' Akiva Eiger's shikul hada'as, no matter how many ra'ayos I have or proofs to my position?

    I think your opinion is worth at least a nickel! :-)

  10. Mike S.10:04 PM

    1) I do not understand why everyone points to Avraham ben HaRambam, when R. Sa'adya Gaon says explicitly in Emunot v'Deot (Ch. 7) that a literal interpretation of a passuk must be abandoned if it contradicts "chush" (sensory data) or "sechel", which would seem parallel to our conception of science. It would seem a much more substantial issue for both sides to contend with.

    2) Judaism is based on mesorah from rebbe to talmid. But that makes it a very static system, and we live in an era of breathtakingly rapid change, both scientific and social. These changes impact even the most insular of Chareidi communities. Like it or not, the Rabbonim of our time must confront the challenges raised by these changes. I do not mean to say that they must surrender to all these changes, chas v'shalom. However, to tell the olam that they should stick to learning sha"s and posekim in the same way they did in Volozhin and ignore everything going on in the larger society is a recipe for failure even among committed frum Jews. The Rav, zt"l used to teach that one needed to both learn sha"s and posekim as they did in Volozhin and confront the challenges of the modern world. Even his close talmidim do not seem to have been able to maintain both sides in balance.

  11. "1) I do not understand why everyone points to Avraham ben HaRambam, when R. Sa'adya Gaon says explicitly in Emunot v'Deot (Ch. 7) that a literal interpretation of a passuk must be abandoned if it contradicts "chush" (sensory data) or "sechel", which would seem parallel to our conception of science. It would seem a much more substantial issue for both sides to contend with."

    Because Saadia Gaon makes it crystal clear that unless this standard has been met one cannot abandon pshat. He only acceepts abandoning pshat when to do otherwise is "not possible" which to me implies demonstrative proof (which philosphically is a very difficult threshhold to reach). He specifically objects to the notion of allegorizing the entire maaseh Breshis!

    Rejecting pshat is an option of last resort that many people take very casually.

  12. Yirmiyahu --
    Oh, You mean like Rav Sa'adiah's saying that the snake did not speak, despite the fact that it's an explicit possuk?

    (Bilaam's donkey didn't speak either, according to Rav Saadiah)

    (See Ibn Ezra, who brings Rav Saadiah)

  13. No, I mean like his saying that:

    "I am making this last statement because of the fact that we, the congregation of Israelites, accept in its literal sense and its universally recognized meaning whatever is recorded in the book f God that have been transmitted to us. the only exception to this rule..."

    And "The result of the application of such a method of interpretation would be that there would not be an item left of the entire story of the creation [of the world] that would not have been divested of its literal meanign, which is the creation and origination of things."

  14. Mike S.7:36 AM

    Yirmiahu: We are unsure precisely what R. Sa'adiyah's standards of evidence was. However, the evidence in favor of the modern scientific understanding of the history of the Earth is far stronger than the scientific or philosophical evidence in favor any matter whatsoever in the time of R. Sa'adiyah. Thus, the modern evidence is far stronger than any standard that R. Sa'adiyah could have meant.

  15. Mike S.7:39 AM

    The evidence in favor of the modern scientific understanding of the early history of the Earth is far stronger than the scientific or philosophical evidence of any point whatsoever that was known in the time R. Sa'adiya. Thus, while we cannot be sure how strong a standard R. Sa'adiya might have set, there can be no question that modern data meets any standard with which R. Sa'adiya could have been familiar.

  16. The evidence in favor of the modern scientific understanding of the early history of the Earth is far stronger than the scientific or philosophical evidence of any point whatsoever that was known in the time R. Sa'adiya.

    If you assume Rav Saadia uses the term "sechel" to refer to mathematical proof or logical necessity, (which I think fits much better) then that is certainly stronger than anything modern science currently understands.
    Deductive knowledge of mathematics and logic is immensely stronger than the inductive knowledge of science.
    So Rav Saadia's criteria are completely irrelevant to evidence from science

  17. Mike S.

    I believe you miss the point. Saadia didn't object to allegorizing the entire maaseh b'reshis because of a lack of evidence, similar to the Rambam's rejection of Plato's view of the eternity of the Universe. Rather he treats it as inconceivable, much like how the Rambam felt about Aristotles view.

    And no, just because the evidence is objectively stronger it doesn't change the subjective opinion people of those times had about the strenght of their proofs. We don't just disagree with their scientific conclusions today but their whole method.

    Nevertheless the concept of deductive proof was known, "demonstrative proof" and it sounds to me that this was his standard. The evidence in today's science is much more sound but deductive it is not, otherwise no further scientific research would be necessary. There would be no fine tuning of timelines and processes etc.

  18. Mike S.9:54 PM

    FKM, deductive proof is only as strong as the axioms one starts from. And this was understood at least to some extent in Sa'adiyah's time, although not nearly as sharply as the mathematical developments of the period from 1870-1960 or so (Basically from Cantor to Cohen's proof of the undecidability of the continuum hypothesis in ZFC) have made clear. However, even if you leave out "sechel" one would be left with "chush."

    However, my larger point seems not to have been clear. What I meant was that, because he deals directly with the question of abandoning literal interpretation while at the same time rejecting allegorizing Breishit, R. Sa'adiya would seem to be a more important source for both sides to deal with than is the letter of R. Avraham ben haRambam, which seems to garner all the attention.

  19. Yankel from Der2:00 AM

    So what if there is an odd R' Avraham ben haRambam or a Pachad Yitzchak out there in our literature if there is a strong mesorah that runs contrary to these views?

    You are making the charedi derech into THE mesorah. That's just not so. The approach of R. Avraham ben HaRambam, which is no different from his father, was the NORMATIVE approach in Sefarad and was still considered by normative by the Hirschian school, Rav Herzog, the Torah u'Madda school, etc. Yes, the charedi world has rejected it, but there is more to Am Yisrael than just the charedi world.