Thursday, March 01, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Postscript: More On "Jewish Philosophy"

(Picture courtesy of Arutz-7)

I don't mean to be disrespectful in any way toward the Gedolei HaRishonim mentioned below by dredging up old disputes. My only purpose in writing this is to put in context Rabbi Nachman's remarks in Chayei Moharan 407-412, where he voices his disapproval of those who veered away from Chazal under the influence of the prevailing intellectual climate of their time and place.

During the early medieval period, Greek philosophy became fused with Christianity, on the one hand, and the relatively new religion of Islam, on the other. Living in the cosmopolitan society of Spain, where ideas were debated and exchanged freely, many Jewish scholars were tempted to depart from the way of thinking of the Talmudic sages and adopt what was then considered the "modern" philosophical approach. The often abstruse and symbolic thinking of Chazal lost its beauty in their eyes, and the false grace of rationalism cast its spell over them.

The MaHaRSHaL of Lublin (Rabbi Shlomo Luria) and MaHaRaL of Prague (Rabbi Yehudah Loewe ben Bezalel), two towering Ashkenazic scholars of the 16th century, did much to counteract this drift away from Chazal.

In his classic Talmudic-halakhic work Yam shel Shlomo ("Sea of Solomon"), Introduction to Bava Kama, the MaHaRSHaL argues against the philosophy of the RaMBaM, and protests the latter's endorsement of the rationalist approach of 11th century biblical commentator Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra. He writes: "Most of [Rabbi Ibn Ezra's] intellectual edifice and commentary is based on astronomy, natural science, and foreign traditions. He frequently contradicts the words of the Torah and the Talmudic sages, either because he was unaware of them, or because he failed to understand them. His honor is deserved, for he was a great thinker, and 'one cannot refute a lion [after his death]' (Gittin 83b); nevertheless, I must say that we cannot follow his interpretations in any way, neither to obligate nor to exempt, neither to forbid nor to permit."

The MaHaRaL of Prague follows the approach of his teacher MaHaRSHaL in taking to task those Rishonim who, under the influence of philosophy, often failed to recognize the deeper truth of the rabbinic interpretation of Torah. A few of the great Rishonim (in chronological order) with whom the MaHaRaL takes issue on these grounds include:

* Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra: see Sefer Gevuros HaShem, chapter 16, where MaHaRaL refutes the Ibn Ezra's questions about the interpretation of Chazal that Yocheved was 130 years old when she gave birth to Moshe Rabbeinu. He does so both on a "common sense" level and a mystical level.

* RaMBaM (Maimonides): In Gevuros HaShem, chapter 2, MaHaRaL contrasts the interpretation of the RaMBaM with that of the Mekhilta (and RaSHI) concerning the scriptural basis for the mitzvah of Sippur Yetziyas Mitzrayim (reciting the story of the Exodus on Passover night). Again, the critical issue is the departure from the drush of Chazal in favor of an alternate way of thinking.

* RaMBaN (Nachmanides): In general, the RaMBaN is not guilty of this type of "post-Chazal" interpretation, and frequently takes to task the Ibn Ezra for doing so. However, MaHaRaL doesn't let him off the hook. He notes that the RaMBaN contradicts the Gemara's claim that Avraham Avinu was born in Kasdim (Chaldea). He refutes the RaMBaN's approach in Gevuros HaShem, chapter 5, and opens up new vistas of understanding Chazal. He also takes the RaMBaN to task in chapter 7 for his original interpretation of Avraham Avinu's test of faith when told that he would yet father a child.

* Don Yitzchak Abarbanel: The great fifteenth century thinker and communal leader during the Spanish Inquisition speculates that the reason for our enslavement in Egypt was that the sons of Yaakov Avinu sold their brother Yosef into slavery. MaHaRaL says of this: "These words are like an artistically crafted painting on a wall, which seems life-like to the viewer standing at a distance. However, when one comes closer, he sees that it is but a painting, entirely lacking the spirit of life. So it is with such commentaries…" (Gevuros HaShem, chapter 9). Although MaHaRaL never mentions the Abarbanel by name, there is no question that he is the target of MaHaRaL's criticism in many of his works.

* RaLBaG (Gersonides): In the first few chapters of Gevuros HaShem, MaHaRaL takes the RaLBaG to task for his rationalization of miracles, etc.

In Be'er HaGolah and other works, MaHaRaL defends the teachings of Chazal against the medieval rationalists, too.

This position is shared by Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz of Prague, a younger contemporary of MaHaRaL, in Shnei Luchos HaBris (AKA "SHeLaH"), tractate Shavuos (Vol. 3, sec. 29-32, in Jerusalem 1993 five vol. edition). We cited his name in Part I of this series, but didn't quote anything from him. The SheLaH summarizes some of the anti-philosophical writings of Rav Hai Gaon and others, including the ROSH (Rabbenu Asher), who states: "In the words of the wise [King Solomon], 'All who go to her never return…' (Mishlei 2:19). That is, whoever delves into philosophy cannot extricatate himself from it in order to imbue his heart with the wisdom of Torah." This drush reappears in Rabbi Nachman's works, such as Likkutei Moharan I, 64.

The SHeLaH concludes in a poetic vein: "Fortunate are we, how good is our portion, and how pleasant our lot, that we 'fill our bellies' with Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Poskim, and afterward delve into the wisdom of the Kabbalah. One who does so will be greatly sanctified / His soul will follow a path true and tried / That leads directly to the House of the Lord / The earthly place where His Sublime Tent was moored / He will grow and increase in spiritual might / And contain within him the supernal light." (Free translation, but pretty close!)

These are among the precursors of the opposition to philosophy of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, as well as on the other side of the Chassidim-Misnagdim divide, the Vilna Gaon. Another major reason for their opposition was that such departures from Chazal (and worse) were "reincarnating" in the eighteenth century with the advent of the so-called "Enlightenment" (Hebrew: Haskalah) movement, which threatened the very foundations of Judaism. Tragically, we have all witnessed the havoc that modernism wreaked upon our faith and our people.

But as Rabbi Nachman also taught: "Yesh inyan she-ha-kol nishapekh le-tovah . . . There is a way that everything can be restored to the good!"

(Thanks to Shlomo Mallin, whose Introduction to "The Book of Power" [Ber – Aryeh International, 1979] provided me with many source references for this posting. However, the translations are my own.)

PPS: Although I don't have a source for this, I once heard that the Vilna Gaon remarked that he only liked one philosopher: Immanuel Kant, who asserted in his "Critique of Pure Reason" that it is impossible to arrive at the truth through reason alone.


At March 1, 2007 at 10:32:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One problem is that philosophy and science can be such powerful tools that their users often ignore or can't see their inherent limitations. I certainly do not accuse Rambam of this, but at least some of his would-be successors are another matter.

At March 1, 2007 at 11:49:00 AM EST, Blogger Baruch Horowitz said...

"I don't mean to be disrespectful in any way toward the Gedolei HaRishonim mentioned below by dredging up old disputes. My only purpose in writing this is to put in context Rabbi Nachman's remarks in Chayei Moharan 407-412, where he voices his disapproval of those who veered away from Chazal under the influence of the prevailing intellectual climate of their time and place"

My assumption is that there are different types of people with different needs. I freely admit that emunah al pi chakirah has it's drawbacks and dangers, and is not as acceptable as peshutah.

There are however some(many?)people in the Frum community who are unable to acknowledge that people are different, and have different paths in Avodas Hashem, and could benefit from being guided by Torah leaders in a more rational approach. This is most unfortunate, in my opinion, although there may be good reasons for this.

The challenge in this type of discussion is how to satisfy your own side, without attacking the other. As Rabbi Sears states, his intention is not to attack the other side.

I think it is fair to say, however, that somene who finds a rebbe who, while being a genuine talmid chacham, has at the same time a broad appreciation("breidkiet") for the greatest works of Jewish philosophy, as well as for the neshama needs of his students, is lucky, indeed.

Baruch Horowitz

At June 2, 2007 at 3:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the comment from reb nachman "yesh inyan shehakol nishapekh l'tova" says it best. where is that from? you'd think he's connected with rabi akiva's ability to vision beyond appearance of destruction..which came from r'nachum(!)ish gimzo's "gamzu l'tova".
but i liked how you followed that with the shelah "fortunate are we..." there's something helpful about the idea of "filling our bellies" with the best spiritual that's a diet for life!


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