Sunday, November 16, 2014

Did Ibn Ezra/Rashbam/Radak/other pashtanim believe what they wrote?

The footnote at the end of letter 31 - part 2 in vol 4 of Michtav has become well known these days because it deals with the issue of apparent contradictions between Chazal and  science, a topic widely discussed mei'Hodu v'ad Kush in the Jewish blogsphere.  I want to call your attention to the body of the letter, which raises a no less important issue, albeit less well known.   Rav Dessler in that letter distinguishes between two types of derashos of Chazal: 1) derash which is obviously not meant as a literal interpretation of the text, but rather adds a level of meaning above and beyond what the text says; 2) derash which serves to illuminate the plain meaning of the text by filling in lacuna, providing context, explaining obscure words, etc.  This second type of derash fills the same function as what, if it came from another source, we would call pshat.  Which brings us to the key question: if Chazal give us "pshat" in pesukim, asks Rav Dessler, why did the Rishonim nonetheless still engage in learning "pshat" in those very same pesukim, oftentimes in ways that contradict or ignore the interpretations of Chazal?  How can the Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, and others push aside Chazal in favor of their own reasoning?

I find Rav Dessler's answer striking.  He suggests that these Rishonim only wrote for the "nevochim," those poor confused souls who could not accept Chazal's interpretation of the text, but were willing to accept the text as true given some other more reasonable (in their eyes) interpretation.  The Rishonim wrote to demonstrate that 1) the text does lend itself to multiple interpretations, apart from the one given by Chazal, and 2) there is no inherent problem in accepting those other interpretations as pshat provided they do not contradict any fundamental theological principles.  Therefore, even if you have trouble digesting a pshat of Chazal, your spiritual goose is not cooked, so to speak.  By way of analogy, Rav Dessler compares the efforts of the pashtanim to the Rambam's Moreh -- a book intended to provide guidence to a specific audience with specific needs, not a book meant to provide the ideal of best answers to all philosophical problems.  So too, the Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam, the Radak, meant to address the needs of a specific audience, not to provide the "ideal" interpretation -- that is limited to the words of Chazal.

In other words: "pshat" is a b'dieved, a crutch for those not yet comfortable or not yet ready to accept the "gospel" (excuse my terminology) of Chazal's explication.

And so I ask the question which I used as the title for this post: did the Ibn Ezra believe what he wrote?  Did he think his interpretation -- where he differed from Chazal -- was correct?  Did the Rashbam?  Surely these giants were not "nevochim" themselves.  So when we read an Ibn Ezra that tosses aside a Midrash and suggests some other reading of a text, are we to think that in his heart the Ibn Ezra really believed the Midrash's interpretation to be the most plausible, and his critique is just a ruse, i.e. he is just going through the motions of presenting the text in a way that he thinks a "navoch" would be comfortable with? 

(I don't know if there is an online Michtav I can link to, otherwise I would.  If someone finds one, pls let me know.)

17 comments:

  1. Rashbam introduction to Parashat Mishpatim. Ramban on Bereshit 8:1 d"h vaTonach, invoking ayin Panim l'Torah.

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    1. And, of course, the Rashbam to Beraishit 37:2, where he quotes Rashi referring to פשטות המתחדשים.
      Which, IIRC, the Shiurei Daas discusses.

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    2. Sorry, but I don't see how this addresses the issue. Rav Dessler is not denying that there are multiple possible interpretations of Torah, some of which we are still discovering, or that the Rishonim sometimes champion interpretations that differ from Chazal. But he would tell you that exercise is a b'dieved. The received interpretation is the "authentic" one and all others are simply for the nevochim who cannot make sense of how Chazal read the pesukim. He apparently reads Moreh the same way -- a b'dieved philosophy designed for nevochim, but not necessarily the best answers to the philosophical issues raised. You can't bring proof from the Moreh itself to impeach that reading, because R' Dessler would simply argue that anything written in the Moreh is meant for the nevochim but the "real" truth lies elsewhere.

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  2. So, ע פנים לתורה which the Ramban invokes means one לכתחילה and sixty-nine בדעבד?

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    1. I don't see any other way to take what R' Dessler wrote. Do you?

      And I see what his motivation is based on part 1 of that same letter -- R' Dessler seems to believe that every statement made by Chazal is authoritative, i.e. mesorah.

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  3. In your comment, you summarize "But he would tell you that exercise is a b'dieved." Leaving aside the debate of Ibn Ezra vs. Chazal (in which I believe your question is valid), is there intrinsic value in uncovering the shiv'im panim la-torah/collecting shitos relative to other directions in learning?

    When we learn Tanach, is the intended purpose for us to develop a comprehensive history of the lives of the historical figures therein? These seforim are constructed as not much more than skeletons, in that respect. Could one say that their primary purpose, therefore, is as a framework for the concepts expressed by the gedolei halacha va-aggada of future generations? The greater kedushas sefer torah could be finessed by virtue of its being the direct d'var HaShem, but if what I'm saying has validity (rather than drifting into minus), it would provide a support for the contention that once we have Chazal's instructions on how to learn the pesukim, does any other "simpler" explanation of "how things happened" have a primary purpose? As another support, I bring the hanhaga of the yeshivos.

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    1. >>>does any other "simpler" explanation of "how things happened" have a primary purpose

      Yes, because how it happened itself is dvar Hashem from which we can learn.

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  4. First, to answer your question: no I don't personally think that Rashbam and Ibn Ezra and Rambam and Radak didn't believe the many things they wrote that disagreed with the literal reading of midreshei chazal (aggada) as pshat for pesukim.

    I would sooner believe that Rav Dessler ztz"l wrote what he wrote "for the nevoichim": i.e., the more literal, fundamentalist approach is the best and safest policy for most people, as a solid foundation for emunas chachamim. Maybe/probably he also personally believed 100% that the literal reading of chazal is true. However clearly he didn't think it was kefira to adopt the non-literal approach of Rashbam et al -- there is no such thing as being a kofer but only lechatchila! -- and if so I don't see how he could be sure that ibn ezra and Rashbam agreed with him as to the literal truth. Rishonim disagree about all sort of important halachic matters lechatchila and even bi-dieved, so why not about non-heretical details of belief? There is nothing in the plain words of Rashbam, Radak et al to indicate they were only addressing nevochim, and in many places quite the opposite seems true.

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    1. >>>I would sooner believe that Rav Dessler ztz"l wrote what he wrote "for the nevoichim":

      Very clever.

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  5. It seems that this question relates to something Rav Bechhoffer discussed recently, whether psak applies to matters of hashkafa.
    http://rygb.blogspot.com/2014/04/does-psak-apply-to-matters-of-hashkafa.html
    As it happens, it is the Rambam that provides the primary source for saying that one cannot pasken on hashkafa. It appears that the tide of halacha has abandoned that Rambam. If so, his opinion in the Moreh is only another expression of a shittah that no longer has any citational value.

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    1. Not that I think this comes up much in our context, but there is a crossroads between hashkafah and halakhah where a pesaq on the halakhah is limiting hashkafic possibilities. The Rambam in particular defines apiqoreis, min, and kofer in ways that combined make a list that parallels his 13 iqarim. Eg he ruled that someone who doesn't believe in the resurrection is a kofer (Teshuvah 3:6). Even though one's day-to-day observance has little to do with whether or not there will be a techiyas hameisim. And yet, according to the Rambam, someone who doesn't believe in TH"M can't be counted toward a minyan, we can't share wine with him, etc... Pesaqim that define who I must treat as a heretic end up being pesaqim in hashkafah. In particular according to the Rambam.

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  6. (Sorry....Google problem)

    I just wanna say this:

    a) At T'chiyas Hemeisim we can ask Rav Dessler what he meant.

    b) Oh, how boring would learning parashas hashavuah be without all the amazingly different pshatim....of Rishonim and Acharonim.

    c) I firmly believe that when Rashbam disputes his zaideh Rashi and when Ramban does so almost all the time, they are not imparting to us anything less than THE PSHAT (or several) that they absolutely believe that THIS is A (but not THE) correct one. Why do we want to think otherwise?!

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    1. On point a), I don't think there is any doubt as to what R' Dessler meant. The doubt I have is whether he is correct or not.

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  7. I think we had this discussion before. Does "pshat" equal "what really happened" or is it simply based on a particular paradigm? If the latter, then belief plays no role.

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  8. Coincidentally, seforimblog just posted earlier this week a nice, elaborate example from the point of view that Chazal = the only correct pshat:
    http://seforim.blogspot.com/2014/11/blog-post.html

    It's fascinating to me how Rav Kamenetsky's piece combines a very creative, novel approach to a familiar story in Chumash together with absolute dedication to divrei chazal as the only correct, literal pshat. I enjoyed it, although you can tell from what I wrote earlier this is not my personal perspective.

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  9. first thank you very much for this post and especially for the rashbam, iv been looking for it for awhile.
    Just a little perspective, there are 2 types of learners, conceptual and textual.(this type of thing can be found in the chovos halevovos). Do you get lomdus from svara or from the words. Yes lomdus must be in the words, but textual ppl are very limited and can't get past What's written, (I know people like this). They can't dilute the words or meaning at all, pure geder.
    No I'm not saying ibn ezra wasn't a lomdan ch'v, I'm still bothered what he held. Could be he held drush comes from the pshat and we can only mangle the pshat with limited license. So maybe he was just making us sensitive to what the undiluted pshat was, before it was mangled

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  10. I understood Rav Dessler somewhat differently, having a position somewhat closer to the one you give besheim R' Menashe Klein. Here's my take.

    There are many right answers, each most appropriate for different kinds of people. In the ideal, we would see the world the way chazal did, so their peshatim in the pasuq would have been the most appropriate ones. However, the world moves on, and the people the rishonim had to write for lived with a different worldview. So, they searched for new explanations. Not that they're only ideas good enough to answer nevochim, but they are correct peshatim for people who are comparatively nechochim.

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