Friday, March 23, 2007

Aggadot and Midrashim - Words of great wisdom - the underpinnings of Judaism.

Some detractors who claimed that he did not believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, Techyat Hametim (TH), attacked Rambam in his later years.
To defend himself he penned the Iggeret Techyat Hametim a remarkable work in its own right. I am not about to discuss the whole issue on this post. I just want to focus in on a segment in the letter where he describes his attitude to Aggadah and to people who quote sources without critical analysis.

Rabbi Shmuel ben Eli was Rosh Yeshiva in Baghdad at the time and he composed a book to attack Rambam on the issue and defend the popular understanding of what TH means. To prove his point R. Shmuel collected a host of quotes from Gemarot and Midrashim. Rambam in his letter comments: (paraphrased translation from the Sheilat version page 351 with my comments in parentheses)

“We received and read the booklet written by the Gaon in its original language. We noted all the Derashot and Haggadot he collected therein. People know that Scholars are not expected to repeat all these exegesis and fantastic stories verbatim, just like women repeat them to each other at the house of mourners (what in our times is known as Tze’enah Ure’enah – Tzena Rena in Yiddish). What one expects of scholars is to explain them so that they are as close as possible to rational thought. (Rambam is aware that many Haggadot are difficult to understand unless one is well versed in philosophic discourse and abstract thinking – not a universal trait).”

This comment dovetails with Rambam’s lengthy discussion of Haggadot in the introduction to his Pirush Hamishna and also in his introduction to the Moreh. The reason I referred to the letter is that here the Aggadah is directly related to what has ultimately Halachik implications – the possibility of a person who does not believe in it being considered a heretic. Still Rambam will not take those Haggadot at face value and expects us to interpret them rationally. Every time I read this I am struck how Rambam writes with much pathos when he describes the problem faced by the intelligent religious person when he faces these seemingly fantastic stories. In this segment he refers to the metaphors in Tanach:

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he be guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law; and even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.”

He then elaborates further on the dilemma facing those who confront the Haggadot:

We have further noticed that when an ill-informed Theologian reads these Midrashim, he will find no difficulty; for possessing no knowledge of the properties of things, he will not reject statements which involve impossibilities. When, however, a person who is both religious and well educated reads them, he cannot escape the following dilemma: either he takes them literally, and questions the abilities of the author and the soundness of his mind-doing thereby nothing which is opposed to the principles of our faith,--or he will acquiesce in assuming that the passages in question have some secret meaning, and he will continue to hold the author in high estimation whether he understood the allegory or not.”

Some commenters have been vehement and felt that I have no respect for Haggadot. On the contrary I believe they are even more important in a sense than Halacha. They teach us the purpose of the Halachik enterprise. As they deal with deep subjects that not everyone has the capacity to understand, they use metaphors and allegories and what at first blush seems like myths and fables.

I believe that anyone who insists on reading them literally is Mevazeh Chazal by inferring that they were stupid and ignorant. The Torah teaches us how to develop our rational faculty and Sechel which is what makes us human. It does not ask us to sublimate it and act like ignoramuses.


  1. DG wrote:
    “Some commenters have been vehement and felt that I have no respect for Haggadot.”

    I assume he was referring to me, among others, and that this post of his relates somehow to our “Moed Katan” disagreement, so I’ll comment.

    1) I see no connection whatsoever between the Rambam’s words and our “Moed Katan” issue. The Rambam refers only to “fantastical” Gemaras that obviously cannot be explained rationally (Example: עולם הבא אין בו לא אכילה ולא שתי'-see יד רמ"ה פ' חלק סנהדרין). The issue at hand is actually quite rational. Here’s why:

    As mentioned earlier, the חשש of the קדמונים when learning Moed Koton, etc. is associated with מראים הלכות שחיטה בעצמן which is in turn associated with אל יפתח פיו לשטן. How does that work? I’ve alluded to an explanation earlier in my posts (not my own explanation), which is similar to the Gemara in Berachos 55.

    וא"ר יצחק שלשה דברים מזכירים עונותיו של אדם ואלו הן קיר נטוי ועיון תפלה ומוסר דין על חבירו לשמים

    And as Rashi explains:שעל ידיהן מפשפשים למעלה במעשיו, namely that certain actions that we do cause a higher level of scrutiny in בית דין של מעלה. An analogy might be, that writing the wrong things when we learn is like taking certain deductions on our tax return, which have a tendency to cause a tax audit. The audit by itself won’t punish you, but nobody likes being put under the microscope. J (PS: Beware of Schedule C!)

    For those so inclined, please see the Maharsa In Moed Katan 18. (Yes THAT Moed Katan!), who elaborates on the difference between ברית כרותה לשפתים and אל יפתח פיו לשטן.

    DG’s comment that “anyone who insists on reading them [Agadata] literally is Mevazeh Chazal by inferring that they were stupid and ignorant” makes no sense when applied to such words of Chazal.

    2) The חשש of being careful with how we express negative things is accepted as a normative Minhag. How else do you explain the well-accepted refrain to always anything negative with "חס ושלם" or "רחמנא ליצלן"? According to DG, this should all be totally unnecessary. Obviously, Klal Yisroel doesn’t find THAT to be too “fantastic” and unbelievable.

    3) DG has still failed to address the MAJOR issue of his lack of respect towards Tzadikim and Gedolim that preceded him by many generations and many magnitudes of intelligence. Oh! So you think the Rambam is on your side. Wake up DG! You seem to be obsessed with your reading of the Shitas Harambam, namely that we don’t know how to understand Aguda, to the point that you’re willing to minimize the ספר חסידים, יוסף אומץ, שיירי כנסת הגדולה, חתם סופר… THAT HAVE ALREADY EXPLAINED TO US THIS SPECIFIC AGUDA! YES! THEY DID UNDERSTAND. Please point out any source where the Rambam disagrees to their explanation of THIS SPECIFIC AGUDA…

    Even assuming the Rambam was in agreement with you, we’re living about one thousand years later. Respect the rest of our Gedolim!!!

    4) According to DG, the Rambam would have to disagree with the many instances of Halachos we don’t understand (of which I mentioned a few in my earlier posts), that ARE INCLUDED IN SHULCHAN ARUCH. Your pat, sweeping generalities (“they’re all בדיעבד”), don’t hold water, as I’ve already pointed out, and DG has conveniently ignored…

    Excuse my strong language. Your disrespect of our Gedolim demands it. I think you mean well, but I’m afraid that you’ve unwillingly passed a slippery slope….

    What I see here is a tendency to use our pitiful lack of knowledge as a measuring stick to understand words of profound wisdom, which is laughable if it weren’t so widespread. At the very least, DG and the others who called this “superstition” should have tried to study the sources first. Surely, no responsible person would not decide whether things are rational or not, before obtaining a very broad ranging בקיאות in Chazal. Otherwise, it’s like six year olds deciding if the latest theory in Physics makes sense. Sure, Chazal should be understandable, but you gotta know something about the standards first, otherwise it’s just pure ignorance. דעת עם הארץ היפך דעת תורה then applies.

    I stand by my words in earlier posts. An apology and retraction is long overdue.

  2. Nice post, as always. I was reading some Spinoza over shabbos, the section (Chapter 7) of his Theologico-Political Treatise where he discusses (and dismisses) Rambam's radical interpretation of Scripture. It's actually pretty interesting, especially since Spinoza's reading is in a sense far more radical. (Also interesting is his analysis of ibn Ezra in the following chapter. Worth reading.) Spinoza was quite a charcter.

  3. Big -S I have read a lot about Spinoza but never Spinoza himself. Thare is just so much time I have and one has to set priorities.

    GH has dubbed me a Rambam fanatic. I admit that I am totally enthralled by the man and have put a lot of effort into understanding him over the last decade. It was a wothwhile endeavour for me personally and has changed and strengthened my religious experience. Not only his philosophical writings but even more so his hallachik. It is amazing that what emerges is a totally integrated halachaik, ethico - moral, and religious worldview that is totally consistent.

    Ramban also had a similar system and that is why he is so great and respected. Learning Ramban every week on the parsha is a great experience. his approiach does not talk to me as well as Rambam does. That does not detract from his opinion and others may agree wbetter with his approach. Neither of these giants would recognize the leaders and thie philosophy that we have endorsed today.

    Other great thinkers is R. Meir Simcha (Ohr Sameach and Meshech Chochma) Rav Kook - though I have only barely scratched the surface on his thought. There are other purely philosophical thinkers who did not do much work in halacha that are worthwhile - the maharal ( i have struggled without success but there is good stuff) R.Zadok (really good ideas - more modern than you think), Tanya and Nefesh hachayim ( they belong to the halachik ones above) and others. Each one gives you good ideas and input. Ramabm and Ramban are much more comprehensive. I amy write a post at legth about some thoughts I have in this area.

    One important point - we have to remember that we read and interpret thus everything is seen through our personal eyes and biases.

  4. > Tanya and Nefesh hachayim ( they belong to the halachik ones above) and others. Each one gives you good ideas and input.

    I am surprised,David.I thought that you were not inclined towards Kabbalah,& the tanya is basically based on it.

    When I was a youth I learned part time (after school) in a chabad Yeshiva. We learned tanya & I even knew the first couple of ch.b'al peh.
    Once I got hold of an old Heb.journal which had an essay about the tanya by the Galician Maskil Shai Hurvits.
    After praising the tanya for being on a higher level than the rest of the chasidic works & for its systematic order,he concludes:(IIRC)
    אבל יסודותיו בנוים על תוהו ובוהו
    The older son of the Rosh Yeshiva who read it (without my permission), burned the book.
    Now this didn't happen in some God forsaken shtettle in E.Europe,but in a modern Anglo-Saxon country!

  5. (I didn’t have time last night to finish my comments on DG’S post, so I’m continuing now.)

    I already tried making the point that 1) When the Rambam says we should not interpret Agudoth literally but that we should rather search for deeper meaning, he was referring to “fantastical” stories and it was never intended for such teachings as אל יפתח פיו לשטן etc., 2) Even when concerning “fantastical” stories, we are obligated to have healthy respect for the earlier commentators who DID understand the deeper intended meaning.

    I want to add a point: The most troubling aspect I see in the ideology that DG and his peers espouse is that they twist the Rambam’s words to use them as the basis of a “feel-good” ideology, where one need not be worried about the implications of Agudoth, since we don’t understand them anyway. This is obvious from the fact that not one single commentator, I repeat NOBODY, tried to offer an alternative explanation of the sources that I mentioned backing up my explanation of the “Moed Katon” issue.

    The Rambam himself makes it clear that the purpose of his words is the EXACT OPPOSITE: He wants to spur us to diligently delve into the Agudoth so that we DO understand their deeper meaning. He states so clearly-at length- in his הקדמה לפירוש המשניות, and very empathetically states that:

    אבל כשירחק בעינינו דבר מדבריהם נרגיל נפשנו בחכמות עד שנבין עניניהם בדבר ההוא וכו' וכשיראה משל ממשליהם שהוא קשה להשכיל אפילו פשוטו ראוי לו להשתומם מאוד על שכלו שלא הבין הענין וכו' ועל כן ראוי שנדין הדרשות ההם לכף זכות ונטיב לעיין בהם וכו'

    The harsh statement that I made here earlier, that what I see at play here is simply a bad case of דעת עם הארץ, is also clearly noted in the Rambam’s words, where he actually goes on to explain WHY people are מלעיג על דברי חכמים, breaking the factors down to four:
    1) חולשת השכל, 2) חוזק התאוה, 3) עצלות בבקשת החכמה, 4) זריזות בבצע העולם

    And then he states:

    על כן לא תמצא לעולם מרחיק דבריהם אלא איש מבקש תאוה ונותן יתרון להנאות המורגשות אשר לא האיר לבו בדבר מן המאורים הבהירים..

    Yes, the Chareidim have their charlatans. The community has its fake demi-gods. We suffer from the Chilul Hashem caused by some self-appointed leaders whose overriding goal is self- aggrandization. The Charedei fakers, like some of the people who post here, also do not feel bothered by Chazal’s words when it contradicts their selfish goals or biased worldview.

    I believe that the advantage that Chareidim/Chasidim DO have, is the crucial humility to know that we don’t understand everything-and the willingness to learn from our illustrious forbearers who knew much more than we do!

    Names like ספר חסידים, יוסף אומץ, שיירי כנסת הגדולה, חתם סופר should never be mentioned in the same breath as that of those charlatans and fakes. And neither should the name of Rav Chaim Kaneivsky, who most clearly and famously possesses the positive traits that are the exact opposite of the four traits the Rambam I quoted earlier mentions. FYI: I am NOT a Bnei Brak Litvak; I am simply a bit familiar with RCK’s tremendous scholarship from learning some of his Seforim.

  6. Ytschak, Kabel et hae'emet mimi sheamrah applies both to the right and the left!

    I may have difficulty with the Ysodot Tanya and nefesh hachayim bulid their theology on but they were great and smart men who toiled leshem shamayim. Good ideas and thoughts can be used to understand from one point of view to another.

  7. Y.K., I understand where you are coming from as I have been there. I disagree with your understanding of rambam and Mesorah in general. I will write about it eventually. It does not belong in a comment.

    Yoiu distort what Mesorah is, what dibbuk chachamim means and what Kevod Hatorah means. It is unfortunately indoctribnated into many aspiring bnei torah to the detriment of Torah and hashkafah by misguided Rashey Yeshivah. I don't believe RK himself would agree with your understanding, though I may be wrong based on things I know about him from my Yeshiva days. I expect he has changed over time and with his added stature.

  8. Y.K. one more thing - RK is probably one of the greatest beki'im in Torah our generation knows and probably generations past. That is not the issue. It is the whole concept of authority that you present that is wrong and has no basis other than in hagiography and legend, not in practical halacha or hashkafah for that matter.

  9. DG Said: "I will write about it eventually. It does not belong in a comment. "

    When and if you do so-and assuming your your post will be exacting and honest than those in the past, I will iy"h comment. Otherwise, i will assume that you have no interest in searching for the truth, and therefore I find no purpose in continuing this discussion.

  10. To Y.K.

    >Names like ספר חסידים, יוסף אומץ, שיירי כנסת הגדולה, חתם סופר should never be mentioned in the same breath as that of those charlatans and fakes

    Have you read the unabridged sefer chasidim? or the ראשית חכמה or
    של"ה (שני לוחות הברית)
    There are there many of hundreds of minhagim mentioned by those gedoilim that even you woud find very bizarre.Most of those minhagim were taken from superstitious goyim,some of them are immoral.
    Should we have respect for those minhagim,saying,
    מנהג ישראל דין הוא?
    How many of those minhagim do you follow?
    Let's stop being hypocritical!

    p.s. speaking about respect for the "gedoilim",WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THE INTERNET?!!
    But I am sure you'll come up with some lame teretz.

  11. to yitschak:

    typical of you and your peers (including DG) is to avoid any substantive discussion and prefer ad hominem attacks based on character assassination. I guess that makes you "feel good", just like the wholesale disregard of Aggadata does...

    1) I already explained that the Minhag at hand IS based on well accepted יסודות. You and your peers will do anything to avoid discussing details, lest the Chareidim end up (gasp!) looking good.

    I've probably mentioned 10 times or more that the question is not following all minhagim but respecting them. Are you hard of hearing?

    Your assumption that "Most of those minhagim were taken from superstitious goyim", is of course unproven. My proofs that this Minhag is based on Gemara IS proven. (Of course-you're ashamed to say that deep down you would say the same about the Gemara, too.... OK)

    As to the internet, I was surprised that non of you Chareidi haters didn't mention that earlier (I was fully expecting it).

    1) Believe it or not, there ARE Charedei Rabonim that are מתיר the internet when used for positive purposes. Not as a לכתחילה, since any thinking person can see the pitfalls, but leaving in the realm of things that we are left to decide on our own.

    2) Which "enlightened" person would tie my supposed 'transgression" of being on the internet to the veracity of my words? And I thought this blog was for the enlightened... קבל את הדברים ממי שאומרם.

    Worry not-Chances are that you won't see me much anymore. I only commented because I was under the impression that the owner of this blog was searching for truth and because I felt a kinship of sorts since I also feel that the Yeshiva system leaves much to be desired (Can you believe I said that?).

    In my humble opinion, I feel I was mistaken. His subsequent posts have been obtuse and totally lacking in intellectual honesty. I have no good reason to waste my time here, since I never sparked any real debate.

  12. On another note, I thought that the post was extremely interesting and have considerably less erudition on the subject than the other posters, I had a question based upon the two Rambam quotes at the end. How did the Rambam himself reconcile the fantastical content of the aggadot and midrashim with his philosophical understanding of things? Did he also view these bodies of work as strictly allegorical?

  13. David S.

    Rambam basically claims that all aggadot and midrashim are allegorical. There is an interesting article in Hakirah by R. Chaim Eisen who claims that Maharal embarked on fulfilling Rambam's promise to explain the aggadot as nallegories. The article has an extensive bibliography of how many Rishonim and acharonim related to them.

  14. YK: I don’t know if you’re still out there reading this, but I hope you are.

    I really feel sorry for you. Not because of what you wrote, since I believe that every one of your arguments is 100% on target. Rather, it’s because of your being used as a doormat of sorts here. Instead of really trying to debate you, the owner of this blog uses your scholarship as a springing board for his posts and avoids either rebutting or admitting to what you argue.

    Take heart, YK. It’s not your fault. What you’re doing is like trying to sell sunscreen to the Eskimos. They don’t need it, and the owner of this blog couldn’t care less about Halacha as Jews have understood it for a millennia. But worry, not. Torah True Judaism has been around for ages and we’ll be around for ages. These pseudo-philosophers and their newfangled offshoot of Judaism will blow over, and they’ll eventually be placed in the dustbin of history.

    Here’s my advice to you: Do to them as they do unto you. Ignore them. Don’t hold your breath waiting for them to “see the light” or engage in any honest discussion. Use your substantial knowledge of Torah where it’s appreciated more and never come back here to check the posts.

    And don’t take their snobbishness and name-calling to heart. It’s not your problem. It’s theirs.

    I hope this is the last comment you read on this blog.

  15. "just like women repeat them to each other at the house of mourners"

    i thought it says doresh lifnei hanashim bveis avel

    is this a corrected translation, or an error?

  16. כמו שידרשום הנשים בבית האבל קצתן לקצתן

    This is defus Lipsie. I did not check Sailat.

  17. ok, it is an earlier quote (I used it once as proof that men were menachem women aveilim and thought id lost my mind) thanks again

  18. hello

    you would like write a letter to a great personnalitie go to post

    I post your letter for you!
    choise of personnality