Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tradition and Wisdom - How do we know which Possek to follow?

In my last post before the Chag I discussed the word Chochma and how Rambam understands it when it refers to God. In the same discussion in MN 3:54 Rambam defines the word Chochma as it relates to us humans. He points out that sometimes it means the Torah itself at others it means the wisdom required to demonstrate the rationale of the Torah that we received.

But as the truths contained in the Law are taught by way of tradition, not by a philosophical method, the knowledge of the Law came to be set up in the Books of the prophets and the saying of the sages as one separate species and wisdom, in an unrestricted sense, as another species. It is through this wisdom, in an unrestricted sense, that the rational matter that we receive from the Law through tradition is demonstrated… Our Sages further say, that man has first to acquire knowledge of the Torah, then to obtain wisdom and then to know what is incumbent on him with regard to the legal sciences of the Law – I mean the drawing of inferences concerning what one ought to do.”

Rambam lays out a procedure that we must follow when learning Torah. First we receive it as given. We study the texts and traditions we receive from our parents and teachers. We then try to understand the reason for these received laws, the philosophical, logical and ethical underpinnings for the rules. Only then do we know how to extrapolate from them and apply them to our daily lives. It is not just a legalistic system but also a fully integrated one that is based on logic, ethics and theology. One cannot legislate practical Halacha without also being steeped in logic and philosophy. Our laws are logical and must be well understood before one can undertake to legislate.

“This is also the right order: we must first learn the truths by tradition; then they should be demonstrated; then the actions through which one’s way of life may be ennobled, should be precisely defined.”

As anyone that learns Rambam’s Halachik work knows, he is always consistent and every rule has an underlying logic. Unlike the Beit Yosef, Rabbi Yosef Karo who wrote the Shulchan Aruch using a method where he followed the majority of opinions of the Rishonim on each issue, thus having sometimes-contradictory rules, Rambam is fully consistent. (The Beit Yosef was a great thinker and Mekubal and that is why the Shulchan Aruch is accepted as the Halacha sefer for all Jews. However the method he chose to decide differences of opinion (see his introduction to Kessef Mishna) led to some inconsistencies.)

The laws have to be rational. A rabbi who has not integrated the Torah with its philosophy, who legislates based on mechanical rules only, cannot be taken seriously. The real great legal minds in Judaism were also great thinkers who were able to discern the rationale behind each Halacha. Unfortunately they are rare and few apart and one needs a certain dose of sophistication and learning to be able to evaluate who these contemporary real Possekim are.

10 comments:

  1. Jewishskeptic10/16/2006 3:44 AM

    >" Our laws are logical and must be well understood before one can undertake to legislate."

    This is very debatable,David.You woudn't e.g. call a "g'zerah shavah" logical,would you?

    >"As anyone that learns Rambam’s Halachik work knows, he is always consistent and every rule has an underlying logic"

    If this was so there would have been not need for the many books written trying to straighten out the inconsistencies found in M.T.& incons. between him & the Talmud.
    There also would have been no need for the myriads of pilpulim based on the M.T.

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  2. >If this was so there would have been not need for the many books written trying to straighten out the inconsistencies found in M.T.& incons. between him & the Talmud.

    I suggest if you can find R.Kaffah's Mishne Torah. Though he does not satisfactorily explain all inconsistencies most are either copyist mistakes or different understanding in the Gemara or Girsaot that we find in the Geonim. I realized that the first time when i learned Kodoshim and used the Likutei halachot of the Chafetz Chaim(!) when I realized that much can be found in rabbeinu Chananel's readings. It got even clearer when I did Mikvaot a few years ago. I came away very impressed with consistency throughout. His understanding of zochalin is unique among the Rishonim for e.g. and exp[lains many of his rulings. Interestingly, I found that when we go back to the early Rishonim such as Ra'avad we find many of the same deliberations however once the Acharonim take over we get lost in a maze of complications. I was thinking of starting a blog to address some of these halachik issues however it scares me.The time required and I wonder who would be interested.

    >You woudn't e.g. call a "g'zerah shavah" logical,would you?

    Very good question. I am doing Sefer Hamitzvot right now and have addressed the issue. I hope to post on it "Lechesheyarchiv". The question is how do you see these Drashot? A priori or a posteriori? RDZ Hoffnman did a lot of work in that area as did the Dorot Harishonim, though disagreeing many times withg each other. The deliberations though are an eye opener. For Rambam's view see his intro to Mishna and sefer Hamitzvot.

    >There also would have been no need for the myriads of pilpulim based on the M.T.

    There isn't and most are nonsense. The few good ones are the Brisker school (the good ones, R.Chaim, RYBS,R.Velvel) etc..., R. Meir Simcha, some Minchat Chinuch (I did most of his on Hilchot Shabbat and was quite impressed), Rogatchover (many times) and a few others.You probably know the story with the Rogatchover and the Rambam in Olam Haemet. I however have a true story about him which I will post.

    Have a happy and healthy winter and year.

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  3. JS, Sefer hamitzvot the second Klal especially. Read it carefully and compare with intro to the Mishna.

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  4. Jewishskeptic10/16/2006 9:35 AM

    David,I am amazed,as always,at your erudition of the Rambam & the literature with reference to him.
    B'inyenei Rambam "afar ani l'raglecha"!
    You too have a happy and healthy winter and year.

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  5. JS, thank you. See 1;24 on Regel fascinating piece. Will post about that too one day.

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  6. Would you tell the story of the Rogotchover and the Rambam for those of us who don't know it?

    I would also like to know how you judge when a 'pilpul' is unnecessary. Are there any abstract criteria that do not depend on intuition.

    And finally I want to add my voice in appreciation of your knowledge and erudition.

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  7. I will tell the story in a slow post day.

    Pilpul is totally a waste of time. there is a letter of the rambam to that effect as there are many other such comments by him. They are quite interesting and i will post on it too.

    Thank you for your compliments. I wish i was a real rambam expert. He was the greatest among our Rabbis . It is easier to study him than to live according to his derech. I wish i was just a little further along in that sense.

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  8. >Pilpul is totally a waste of time.

    I was reading Ramchal's miselos yeshurim the other day and he said the exact same thing. He thought that only Torah that leads to ahava and yira and improving ones midos should be studied. It's a shame that yeshivos spend so much time on intellectual games instead of real Torah

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  9. I didn't phase the question properly. Is there any way of knowing in advance that some chidush is a pilpul, or is pilpul the name we give to chidushim we don't like.

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  10. >Is there any way of knowing in advance that some chidush is a pilpul, or is pilpul the name we give to chidushim we don't like

    Generally the Rabbis are not complicated. They are very logical and straight forward. Anytime you find someone proposing an argument that is based on cliches and not practical facts it is a pilpul.

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