Friday, September 25, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 3).

Professor Yair Loberbaum in his article turns to the Moreh in his attempt to show that Rambam’s attitude towards Aggadah changed drastically in his later years (Rambam wrote it in his fifties).

In his introduction, Rambam enumerates seven possible reasons why we sometime find contradictions in things we read and then proceeds to bring examples that fit each of these categories. The contradictions we find in Mishna and Braitot usually belong to the first category where two opinions are brought down without clarifying that they belong to two different people. The contradictions in Talmud fall either under the same category or under the second one where an author changes his mind and both opinions are recorded. The contradictions in the writings of the prophets fall under either the third where there is a mixture of metaphor and plain talk or under the fourth where certain conditions are omitted. If one does not discover the omission, one gets the impression that there is a contradiction when there really is not. (I plan to discuss this last issue at length on another occasion so forgive my skimming it superficially here (as per the fifth reason)).

As for the divergences occurring in the books of the philosophers, or rather those who know the truth, they are due to the fifth cause.”

The fifth cause for contradictions is pedagogical. Sometimes an easier subject has to be taught before the more difficult one, but cannot be comprehended without having a superficial understanding of the more difficult subject. The difficult subject is presented in a way that can be understood by the unsophisticated even if it is not exactly accurate. As the student progresses he will return and acquire a deeper and more accurate understanding of the matter.

On the other hand, the contradictions occurring in most of the books of authors and
commentators other than those we have mentioned are due to the sixth cause. Likewise, in the Midrashim and the Haggadah there is to be found great contradictions due to this cause. That is why the sages have said: No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah. There are also to be found therein contradictions due to the seventh cause.”

Professor Loberbaum reads the sixth cause as negative. It describes authors that write about deep matters and err because they have not figured out all the ramifications that result from their position thus taking a contradictory stand on a related matter. While philosopher’s contradictions are pedagogical, Aggadah is contradictory because it is wrong. Therefore, they should be disregarded – “No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah”. Contrast this with Rambam’s position in Pirush Hamishna that Aggadot are deep metaphors, clearly there is a change of heart from the young to the old Rambam.

As the discussion here focuses on the sixth cause, I quote it in full.

“The Sixth cause: The contradiction is not apparent, and only becomes evident through a series of premises. The larger the number of premises necessary to prove the contradiction between the two conclusions, the greater is the chance that it will escape detection, and that the author will not perceive his own inconsistency. Only when from each conclusion, by means of suitable premises, an inference is made, and from the enunciation thus inferred, by means of proper arguments, other conclusions are formed, and after that process has been repeated many times, then it becomes clear that the original conclusions are contradictories or contraries. Even able writers are liable to overlook such inconsistencies. If, however, the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered, and the author, while writing the second, does not think of the first, he evinces a greater deficiency, and his words deserve no notice whatever.”

Rambam explains that even amongst the greatest thinkers there is the possibility of not taking an idea to its ultimate conclusion. When that occurs, a contradiction may exist between two statements where one only becomes aware of it when that ultimate conclusion is reached. When the ultimate conclusion is easy to arrive at and obvious, the contradiction can only be because the writer has missed it through negligence or forgotten his earlier position. Such authors are not considered in this analysis. However, when the conclusion is not apparent and needs much thought and processing, such errors may occur amongst the best. It is however noteworthy that Rambam does not assume such a possibility in Halachik matters in Mishna and Talmud nor in the books of the prophets. He does however do so with “commentators”, which apparently include those who comment on Halachik subjects. Revelation cannot be suspected of not thinking through to the end, nor can a work composed by the many such as Mishna and Talmud be suspected of doing so. In metaphysics on the other hand, which is the subject of Aggadah, even the greatest may fall prey to such an error. Therefore, when we encounter such a contradiction we have to accept that is due to a contradiction that was not apparent to the author and questions stop there, thus “No questions should be asked about difficulties in the Haggadah”. There is no indication that they should be disregarded as YL reads it.

If we read it this way, it would agree with Rambam’s earlier position that there is great depth in Aggadah and should be taken very seriously. I did not see Rambam claim that there are no errors and the Rabbis were always right. In fact, Rambam many times questions the correctness of Tannaim and Amoraim when it comes to metaphysical and philosophical issues. Even the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos, Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol, does not escape his critique. My reading finds support if the version Rav Kafieh mentions in note 28 is correct. “Divergences that are to be found in this treatise are due to the fifth, (sixth – according to the R. Kafieh versions) and the seventh.” I do not think Rambam would assign the sixth cause to himself if it had a negative connotation.

YL dwells on Rambam statement, “Likewise, in the Midrashim and the Haggadah there is to be found great contradictions due to this cause”. He tries to argue that “great contradictions” fall under the category of, “If, however, the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered, and the author, while writing the second, does not think of the first, he evinces a greater deficiency, and his words deserve no notice whatever”. He equates “Great contradictions” with “the contradiction between the original statements can at once be discovered”. I believe he is stretching here to make a point. “Great” in this context is more a matter of the subject, where a contradiction in an important matter is seen as great, not because it is obvious.

I do not think this proof is very convincing. However, there is more to come and I will look at those proofs too. I also plan to tackle these contradictions in a series of posts, the different way of reading prophetic writings and Midrash and Aggadah. As we all know, when one learns Rambam one has to be very careful with the words he uses, context, tone and the order in which things are presented.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 2).

Professor Yair Loberbaum (YL) proceeds to make his case for his thesis on Rambam’s sharp change in attitude towards Aggadah in his later years. He quotes two responsa written is his later years that seem to suggest that Rambam felt Aggadah was not to be relied upon as opposed to his earlier statement in Pirush Hamishna that it contained great depth. The first is amongst answers to several questions posed to him by the Dayan Rav Pinchas of Alexandria (Blau edition #458 (i) ). The second is a well-known Teshuvah to R. Sa’adyah ben Pinchas, a disciple, regarding the Sefer Shiur Komah about which he clearly changed his mind drastically as he grew older (I quoted and discussed this issue here ). YL contrasts these two divergent positions, with the opinion of the Geonim who dismiss Aggadah as unreliable. He tries to show that in his youth, Rambam disagreed with the Geonim and as he aged, he eventually accepted their take going even further then them as seen from his vehement rejection of Shiur Komah. I will not bother repeating the whole presentation. I did not find it very convincing. Shiur Komah is an esoteric work and though traditionally it is attributed to Rabbi Ishmael, the great Tanah, Rambam believes it to be misattributed and was composed by Greek preachers (ii) . That is far from proving that he felt that one could ignore genuine Tannaitic works. The other responsa, which I quote verbatim in footnote 1 above, is ambiguous and does not necessarily disagree with the possibility of Aggadah containing deep truths. However, as the Aggadot need deciphering, each thinker has a tendency to come to his own interpretations. How then can one ask from them or use them as proofs for a specific position? An alternate interpretation will yield a different understanding. It is in fact consistent with how Ma’aseh Merkavah is supposed to be taught, Mosserim lo Rashei Perakim and the excelling student comes to his own conclusions (iii) .

YL also brings additional support from a comment in Iggeret Techyat Hametim. That is even less convincing than the first two. I am not sure why he resorted to these three “proofs” as they do little to help his thesis.

In the next post, I will discuss the proofs YL brings from the Moreh itself. Some are quite convincing, at least at first blush. We will see if they stand up to scrutiny.

Gmar Chatima Tova to all my friends and readers.


שו"ת הרמב"ם סימן תנח
ולעניין יוצא תיבה +הכוונה אולי למאמרו של ר' יוחנן בסנהדרין ק"ח ב' למשפחותיהם יצאו מן התבה אמר ר' יוחנן למשפחותם ולא הם, ועי' הספרות שהביא לוצקי שם /התקופה ל - ל"א/ עמ' תש"ב+ כל אותן הדברים דברי הגדה +על יחסו של רבינו לאגדה עי' לוצקי שם /התקופה ל - ל"א/ עמ' תרצ"ט ואילך+ ואין מקשין בהגדה +עי' על מאמר זה לוצקי שם /התקופה ל - ל"א/ הע' קכ"ד+ וכי דברי קבלה הן או מילי דסברא אלא כל אחד ואחד מעיין [בפירושן] כפי מה שיראה לו בו +השווה דברי רה"ג באוצר הגאונים חגיגה עמ' נ"ט+ ואין בזה לא דברי קבלה ולא אסור ולא מותר ולא דין מן הדינין ולפיכך אין מקשין [בהן] ושמא תאמר לי כמו שיאמרו רבים וכי דברים שבתלמוד אתה קורא הגדה כן כל אלו הדברים וכיוצא בהן הגדה הן בעניינם בין שהיו כתובין בתלמוד +השווה אוצר הגאונים שם /חגיגה/ עמ' ס', והשווה גם לוצקי שם /התקופה ל - ל"א/ סוף הע' קכ"ז+ בין שהיו כתובין בספרי דרשות +הם כנראה המדרשים המיוסדים על פסוקי המקרא ומסודרים לפי סדר התנ"ך+ בין שהיו כתובין בספרי הגדה +הם כנראה הקובצים הכוללים אגדות בלי סדר מיוחד.+ (Blau’s footnotes are inserted between two addition signs in the text above).

I am not sure who these Darshanim were, possibly composers of Midrashic texts who attributed to great people their own ideas. A similar claim was levied against the Zohar centuries later.

ולא במרכבה ביחיד, אלא אם כן היה חכם ומבין מדעתו and תני רבי חייא אבל מוסרין לו ראשי פרקים Hagigah 13a.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Did Rambam's Attitude To Aggadah Evolve? - A review of Professor Loberbaum Article (Part 1).

I just finished reading a very intriguing article by Professor Yair Loberbaum (YL) in Tarbiz volume 78 #1 October-December 2008. It deals with Rambam’s attitude towards Aggadah and tries to show how his thinking evolved over time. I will try to highlight in upcoming posts YL proofs and see if they stand up to scrutiny.

In the introduction to the Moreh, Rambam writes,

“In our commentary on the Mishna we stated our intention to explain difficult problems in the Book on Prophecy and in the Book of Harmony (Commentary according to Pines). In the latter we intended to examine all the passages in the Midrash which, if taken literally, appear to be inconsistent with truth and common sense, and must therefore be taken figuratively.”

Rambam was planning two separate treatises, one dealing with the books of the Prophets and a separate one dealing with the rabbinical exegesis. In fact, in his introduction to Perek Chelek as part of his discussion of the seventh Ikar, he writes:

פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י
ולכן אניחנו למקומו או בספר ביאורי הדרשות שהבטחתי בו, או בספר הנבואה שהתחלתי לחברו, או בספר שאחבר בפירוש אלו היסודות

After telling us that it would take a lot to explain prophecy and how Moshe’s prophecy differs, Rambam writes,

“And I will leave it to write about it in its proper place, either in the treatise on the derashot (exegesis) which I promised, or the book on the prophets which I have already begun to write, or in a treatise that I will compose about these fundaments (dogma).”

So, in his youth (he was in his twenties when he wrote the Pirush Hamishna), Rambam had plans to write three books; one on Aggadah, one on the books of the prophets and one on the fundamental issues of Judaism. What happened to those plans?

Continuing the introduction to MN Rambam explains that as he started the project of explaining the Midrashim he faced a dilemma. He could not fully explain the real meaning of those Midrashim because that would thwart the original intent of keeping them secret. As further consideration he writes,

“We have further noticed that when an ignoramus among the multitude of Rabbanites reads these Midrashim, he will find no difficulty; inasmuch a rash fool, possessing no knowledge of the properties of things, 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: he takes them literally and thereby questions the abilities of the author and the soundness of his mind. He is 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.”

YL points out Rambam’s surprising statement that by questioning the abilities of the author and the soundness of his mind, the religiously intelligent “is doing thereby nothing which is opposed to the principles of our faith”. He further contrasts it to Rambam’s statement on the same issue in his introduction to Chelek, twenty-five years earlier about these same people.

, והם כת ארורה שהתפרצו כלפי אנשים רמי המעלה שכבר נודעה חכמתם אצל החכמים.

"And they are an accursed group that has weighed in against people of high caliber whose wisdom is well known to the scholars." (For the whole quote in Hebrew, see the footnote).

An accursed group is quite different from “it not being opposed to the principles of our faith”. Comparing Rambam’s attitude towards the other two groups, the one that accepts the Midrashim as is, even when they violate logic and those who are advanced and understand them as allegories YL demonstrates a subtle change too. In the Pirush Hamishna the first group, those who insist and accept the Midrashim as literal are seen as insulting rather than respecting the rabbis by making them look foolish. He is quite vociferous saying that this group (which was quite widespread in his time and so it is the common Yeshivish stand nowadays) “destroys the beauty of the religion and darkens its splendor”. In MN however his tone is much milder; “inasmuch a rash fool, possessing no knowledge of the properties of things, will not reject statements which involve impossibilities”. It is a personal deficiency rather than an insult to the Rabbis. As to the third group, those who realize that the Midrashim are allegories for deep matters, in his Pirush Hamishna he offers them help while in MN he is satisfied with them knowing that there is an interpretation that might elude them.

Professor Loberbaum uses this analysis as the opening statement for his argument that Rambam’s opinion about Midrashim and Aggadah evolved. This in itself is not proof positive yet. First, we have to take into account the intended audience of the two works of Rambam. Pirush Hamishna was intended for the general public and MN to the sophisticated reader. YL dismisses this possibility though I do not find his argument conclusive. Second, Rambam tended to be much more polemical in his youth. However if it were for this alone, YL’s argument would not be very convincing. In upcoming posts, I will review some of his other proofs, some quite insightful and surprising.


פירוש המשנה לרמב"ם מסכת סנהדרין פרק י
והכת השניה גם הם רבים והם אותם שראו דברי חכמים או שמעוהו והבינוהו כפשטו, וחשבו שאין כונת חכמים בכך אלא משמעות פשטי הדברים, ולכן זלזלו בו וגנוהו וחשבו למוזר מה שאינו מוזר, וילעיגו על דברי חכמים לעתים קרובות, וחושבים שהם יותר נבונים מהם ויותר זכי רעיון, ושהם עליהם השלום פתיים חסרי דעת סכלים בכל המציאות, ואינם משיגים שום דבר כלל, ורוב מי שנפל במחשבה זו אותם הטוענים שהם רופאים, וההוזים במשפטי המזלות, לפי שהם לפי דמיונם פקחים חכמים פילוסופים וכמה רחוקים הם מן האנושות אצל הפילוסופים האמתיים. והם יותר סכלים מן הכת הראשונה ויותר פתים, והם כת ארורה שהתפרצו כלפי אנשים רמי המעלה שכבר נודעה חכמתם אצל החכמים. ואלו הכשירו את עצמם במדעים עד שידעו איך כותבים את הדברים בענינים האלהיים וכיוצא בהם מן המדעים להמון ולחכמים, ויסגלו לעצמם את החלק המעשי של הפילוסופיא, כי אז היו מבינים אם החכמים חכמים או לאו, והיו מובנים להם עניני דבריהם.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Fear Of Thinking Is Not Fear of Heaven - It Is Ignorance.

החסרון היותר גדול שיש בתכונתה של יראת שמים שאינה מחוברת יפה באורה של תורה הוא מה שבמקום יראת חטא היא מתחלפת על יראת המחשבה וכיון שהאדם מתחיל להיות מתירא לחשוב הרי הוא הולך וטובע בבוץ הבערות הנוטלת את אור נשמתו מכשלת את כוחו ומעיבה את רוחו

(Free Translation) (Shemona Kevatzim – 267 – page 86)

The greatest downside of Yra’at Shamayim (Fear of Heaven) which is not properly rooted in the light of torah, is that fear of sin is replaced with intellectual fear. Once a person becomes afraid to think, he slowly becomes mired in ignorance that takes away the light of his soul, weakens him and thickens his spirit.

לעולם אין רשות להתיבה האמורה או הנכתבת להיות סותמת בפני השכל הישר וזה כלל גדול בתורה בין בדיעות היותר נשגבות בין בפרטים היותר קלים

(Idem 278 – page 88)

One may never let the oral or written word override straight logic. This is a great Torah rule, whether on the weightiest theological issues or in the lighter details.

The popular understanding of Yra’at Shamayim is meticulousness with the performance of rituals, especially ritualistic Mitzvot. It is at the root of the Chumra phenomenon we observe nowadays. It extends into the areas of thought. One may not think for himself, must accept on belief all that he was told is supposedly “Mesora” without questioning its veracity even when it goes against logic. The “consensus” of the opinion of, according to some “Klal Ysroel” and others “Gedolei Hatorah”, whatever the definition of these terms may be, is binding. This closed-mindedness is a false fear that is not rooted in Torah. It throws the person back into the dark ages. Torah on the other hand teaches us to seek out the truth and not to shy away from it. The “light” of Torah illuminates our minds, admonishes us to always think, observe things with open eyes and an open mind. Fear of sin is not the same as intellectual fear. Suppressing thought takes away from a person that which makes him human: his soul, creativity and spirit.

Reliance on one’s logic, the ability to think freely, applies in all matters even when confronted with oral or written words, no matter who the author is. This does not mean that an authoritative text that one does not understand should be dismissed. It means that if it is authentic and authoritative and does not make sense, it must have been misunderstood and needs further investigation. The Torah is truth and is not afraid of it. When honestly and thoroughly investigated, it stands up to all scrutiny. Such fear of thinking is an insult to Torah as if it has to hide from truth and has to be accepted on faith.

Shabbat Shalom.