Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nothing but Truth - .Risk and Reward.

Rambam got involved in a major controversy when he permitted the travel on Shabbat on boats that ply the Nile. His ruling contravened an earlier ruling of the Geonim including Rav Hay Gaon regarding traveling Shabbat on the Euphrates, the river that crosses Baghdad, where the yeshiva in Bavel was. Rabbi Shmuel Ben Eli[1], the Rosh Yeshiva at the time, took great umbrage at the Rambam’s ruling and a major Machloket broke out. Besides the Halachik issues, there was much political undertones to the fight because the RY, who was considered the leader of Jewry in the Middle East, felt under attack, his authority being undermined by the Great Eagle in Cairo. The controversy is recorded in History by exchanges of letters between Rambam and RSBE on the subject. I will not go into the Halachik considerations as I want to focus on a side comment Rambam makes, that is an eye opener on his thought process. It also contrasts the way the contemporary “defenders of the faith” think and the way the great thinker did.

Rambam first wrote a letter laying out his position on the issue of river travel. RSBE answered back attacking Rambam’s arguments. Rambam then replied[2] answering all the questions posed by RSBE and that letter’s introduction is the focus here.[3]

שו"ת הרמב"ם סימן שי

ואמנם מה שהקדים מן ההתנצלות משיב עלינו והארכתו במוסר ובשבחנו יגמלנו השם טובות על כל זה וירבה בחסידים ובבעלי מוסר כמותו. וזהו הראוי לבעלי המעלות הגדולות בחכמה ובדת. ואין ספק אצלי שנדמה לו יצ"ו שאנחנו כרוב בני אדם שיקשה להם כשיסתור אדם דבריהם או ישיב עליהם דבר. וכבר הצילנו השם מזה ובורא עולם יודע כי אפי' השיב עלינו הקטן שבתלמידיו או חבר או מתקומם היינו שמחים בזה אם השיב תשובה אמתית ונשמח במה שיעוררנו עליו במה שנתעלם ממנו. ואם אנחנו רואים גם כן שזה המשיב טועה לא נשנא אותו ולא נרחיקהו חלילה וחס לא נתפוס עליו היותו משיב עלינו במה שלא נתישב בתשובתו עלינו לפי שהאדם מאמת דעת מיוחדת או מבטלה כפי מה שיראה לו בעיונו בין היה אותו עיון אמת או שקר. הלא תראה שכל החכמים ז"ל בכל עיוניהם התלמודיים היו מקשים בקושיות אינן אמיתיות על דברים אמיתיים אין בזה חסרון בחוק מי שישיב בלתי הסתכלות שלם.

(Paraphrased translation)

Regarding your apology for disagreeing with me, your self criticism and the praises you bestowed on me, God shall reward you for this and give us many more, sage and ethical people, like you. Yours is the preferred behavior of those who are at the top echelons of knowledge and religion. I have no doubts that you think that I am like most people who get upset when someone disagrees with them or shows that they erred. God has protected me from this trait. The Creator knows that even if the youngest of the students, a peer or an opponent will disagree with me I would happy if their argument was true and I would rejoice if I were shown something that I missed. If I find that the interlocutor is mistaken I will not hate him or distance him God forbid. I will not criticize him for attacking me with something that does not stand up to scrutiny for a person accepts an idea or discards it based on his personal understanding whether it is ultimately true or false. See how our sages in all their Talmudic discourse asked incorrect questions on true statements. One cannot always blame someone for asking without having thought things through completely.

There are two very striking points made in this excerpt. It is not enough that Rambam would appreciate if someone showed him to be wrong and corrected him. He would find it acceptable if someone tried to contradict him with an incorrect argument. The fact that the person who disagreed thought his argument to be true is enough. Even more astounding is the understanding that Tannaim and Amoraim would ask questions without thinking them through all the way. Rambam understood that like him the Rabbis were interested in the truth and would go to any length to find it. But along the way, in the process of searching mistakes can be made. Without taking that risk the truth will never be found.

[1] Professor Simcha Assaf Z”L published RSBE letters in 1970. The introduction has a short biography of RSBE.
[2] There is an undertone of frustration and condescension in the letter. One gets a clear impression that Rambam did not consider RSBE his intellectual equal.
[3] This Teshuvah is copied from the Spertus version of the Bar Ilan Responsa. The numbering is based on the Blau edition of SHUT Harambam.


  1. This attitude-while praiseworthy- is not exactly reflected in the Gemara.

    For example, in the Mishnah Shabbat, they went up to the attic of Chananyah ben Chizkiyahu, took a fair vote, and Bet Shammai happened to win that day. But the Yerushalmi Shabbat 9a = 1:4 has an important detail: תנא ר' יהושע אונייא תלמידי ב"ש עמדו להן מלמטה והיו הורגין בתלמידי ב"ה. = the BSh guys were standing guard at the bottom of the stairs to kill any Bet Hillel guys who were trying to get upstairs for the vote. Doesn't sound like respect for the other guys' opinions. And in the Bavli Yevamoth 15b מפני מה אתם מכניסין ראשי בין שני הרים גדולים בין שתי מחלוקות גדולות בין ב"ש ובין ב"ה מתיירא אני שמא ירוצו גלגלתי . Again, a mortal fear of retaliation. And more disturbing is in Megillat Ta'anit that the 9th of Adar was declared a fast because on that day BH and BSh disputed (nechleku) and 3000 of their students were killed.

    And how exactly does this jive with 'derachaea darkei noam' and 'talmidei chachomim marbim sholom baolam'??

  2. I am quite sure the sources you are quoting are metaphors. It would not jive with the Yerushalmi in Yevamot that they continued to intermarry even though Tzarat Habat was Erva. I vaguely recall a discussion on this in Dorot Harishonim though I cannot place it. if I have time over shabbat I will try to find it.

    GHenerally the historical facts in the gemara are very hard to decipher. Unless one has a lot of peripheral information of what happened at that period one gets a very distorted view from the plain text. We know that even the Rishonim misisnterpreted many stories wrong and only later when new facts were discovered it was shown that it had a totally different meaning. For a case in point see this article

    in a torah situation see ramban on Be'od kivrat eretz lavo efrata.

  3. Look at Dorot Harishonim volume 2 pages 584 - 595 especially note 18 on page 585. Those Rabbis did not fight physically or kill. They use metaphors for intelectual arguments as is clear from the context.