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.


  1. Doesn't the Rambam's comment that he wishes all Agadot were like the one that says one should not increase his praise of God in the Tefilah say it all? Meaning, at least at that point in his life, he realized that not all the statements in the Agadah made sense, whichever way you try to look at it?

  2. In MN 1:59 Rambam is discussing the human innability of describing God correctly. He quotes a "famous" chazal that "everyone knows" by Rabbi Chanina who clearly says so.

    "You must surely know the following famous dictum--would that all the dicta were like that!--even though it is well remembered I shall quote it to you textually" -, (Friedlander with some Pines edited into it)

    I am not sure what Rambam is referring to, it being famous and he wishes all were so famous,its clarity or indeed its depth and consistency. As I explained in the post Rambam held that the Rabbis, as opposed to prophets, were not infalible and were not always consistent all the way when the issues were of great depth. Inconsistency when dealing with such great matters, although possibly in error does not detract from the importance and depth of the subject. In an upcoming post I will in fact prove this from a passing comment Rambam makes that YL missed.

    There is a misconception in general that halacha and aggadah are always intrinsically right. That can only be said about prophecy. Rabbinic writings are possibly mistaken as we can see by the arguments among the rabbis (elu ve'elu and what it means is in itself a major debate amongst the rishonim). That is why in halacha we follow the majority of a sanhedrin, a ruling that can be overturned by subsequent sanhedrin. The latter felt the first erred. In Aggadah/metaphysics there is no binding decision, because the truth is elusive. Rambam repeats that three times in pirush hamishna in his youth.

    Can one therefore argue that Rambam had less regard to halacha because it may be in error? It is this monochromatic insistence that is insulting to a great thinker like Rambam who was extremely complex, that I object to.

  3. As the other YL (Yeshayhau Leibowitz) pointed out many times, the Rambam did not feel that one was mandated to believe any specific thing, in contrast to the Halachah, which one is mandated to follow. So even if the Halachah is "mistaken" - i.e. not arrived at in a logical manner - the Rambam would still hold, as you pointed out, that one is obliged to follow it until the next Sanhedrin overrules it. So there would not really be any value in holding "mistaken" Halachah in low regard. But for matters of thought, where one is not required to follow what the Sages have said, the value in pointing out the perceived error is to prevent other people from holding those same beliefs.

    As of now, I believe Elu Ve'elu to mean that the process of Halachah proves that there is a living God, because both sides are trying to implement Halachah into their lives. Because of this, even if one opinion is wrong, it is still the Halachah, because God left the Halachah to man. I don't believe that both sides can be objectively right, as that would imply either a contradiction in the Torah or that the Torah did not leave guidance on that specific issue, and in the latter scenario, neither side is wrong. But we believe that the Halachah is developed out of the Torah and does not arise out of thin air, so it must be that one side is right and the other side is wrong. It's just that being wrong is ok in matters of Halachah. Ideally, a later Sanhedrin will correct the error. In contrast, there is no valid reason for holding on to a perceived incorrect belief merely because that belief was written down into the Agadah.

    The impression I got from the Rambam's above comment was that he agreed intellectually with the lesson the Gemara was trying to teach, whereas he did not agree intellectually with many other statements in the Gemara.

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  5. Hi, I met a guy today who rejects the Rambam, he says that Rambam broke the seal of Rav Ashi in Talmud by removing aggadah from his Mihsneh Torah (not true). But then he provided an example, which threw me off my feet. He says that in Hilchot Malch'im, Rambam makes an halachic ruling on the 7 mitzvot bnai noach, problem is, the tractate in Gemara is from Sanhedrin, which employs an aggaditah!

    The teaching comes from Devarim on trief meat, it can be given to a Ger Toshav, who can sell it to a Na'Cree, Baba Kama teaches that a Na'Cree, who lives within the boarders of Eretz Yisrael, qualifies as a hostile foreigner. This isn't so for the Ger Toshav, who has civil and political rights. Why? Because he swore an oath upon his life to keep the 7 mitzvot of Noach. He therefore claims that Rambam changed the parameters of the Ger Toshav to a universal commandment applicable to all Goyim, anywhere on planet earth. Therefore, his halacha ignores the fact that if the Goy failed to keep the 7 laws, he'd be considered a Na'Cree, and if he's still in the boarders, that's a capital crime, the Sanhedrin would put him to death (though their jurisdiction is only limited to the Israeli state, but if Rambam is right, than a Goy in the US could be put to death by the Court!). Not only did he do this, but he chose a source from aggadah, and made it halacha, something he said in many places we're not to do, so, did he contradict himself?

    Point is, is any of this true? Did Rambam say we could psak halacha from aggadah (my research says no), and what about this example of his? Does it merit anything, can it be refuted? Thanks!