Thursday, January 11, 2007

Spinoza and Maimonides on Interpretation II

In the previous post, we explored Spinoza's argument against Maimonides' method of interpreting Tanach. We saw that it is, in fact, a serious critique that seems to be well substantiated. We were left with the question of whether philosophically inclined Rishonim actually derived their theological positions from Scripture, or simply twisted the text to accord with conclusions that they reached independently.

I believe that, in order to answer the difficulty Spinoza raises, we must look more closely at its premises. One of Spinoza's theses throughout the TTP is that Tanach should be understood on its own terms as a self-sufficient body of literature. Of course, he is of the opinion that it is full of both internal and external contradictions. But he emphasizes that if we are to honestly comprehend the message of a given passage in the Bible, we need to ignore any preconceived notions we may have and allow the text to speak for itself.

At the same time, Spinoza vehemently rejects the notion that Tanach has anything to tell us about theological, metaphysical or scientific matters. When it discusses such topics, it represents nothing more than the crude opinions of the prophets on these issues. His view is that the Tanach is primarily designed to inspire people to pursue the virtues of charity and justice in their dealings with one another. (We will analyze this position further in a subsequent installment of this series.)

Taken as a whole, then, Spinoza's critique is founded on one fundamental principle: that the Bible is not an authoritative resource for metaphysical, scientific or philosophical insight. Therefore, it need not be reconciled with other information we discover or conclusions we reach about the external world. It is a guide to human action, nothing more and nothing less.

This is where Maimonides parts ways with Spinoza. In the minds of the Rambam and likeminded Rishonim, the Tanach is a source of knowledge about the world, albeit not the only source; we also have our senses and our powers of reasoning. Neither of these three entities provide us with a complete, independent account of the whole of reality. However, since each one does contribute a dimension to our understanding of truth, we must view them as complementary to one another rather than contradictory.

Thus, if through reasoning the Rambam arrives at certain conclusions about prophecy or angels, and he is confident that his conclusions are well-founded and accurate, he perforce assumes that the Tanach will fit in with his theory. Similarly, if the Ralbag posits a specific theory of Divine Knowledge and is confident in his analysis, he will naturally expect to find confirmation for it in Tanach. This doesn't necessarily mean that either the Rambam or the Ralbag would have formulated the positions that they did from the Tanach alone. It simply means that they expect Tanach, sense perception and human reasoning to converge and yield a single consistent, intelligible worldview.

An analogy to scientific research will bolster this point. When a physicist is confronted with experimental data that run contrary to a theory that is well-established based on other evidence, his first move will be to effect some reconciliation between the new findings and the old findings. Because he is convinced that one system of natural law manifests itself in all physical phenomena, he proceeds with the assumption that the data complement one another somehow, and that further investigation will show how they fit together. Sometimes, interpretations offered for the anomalous data may seem forced or stretched, but they are motivated by the premise that there is a pervasive unity in nature and that data from different sources must ultimately reflect that unity.

The Rambam and the Ralbag approach Tanach with the same attitude - it is one of several pieces of "evidence", all of which must be harmonized if they are to develop a comprehensive and consistent metaphysical theory. Thus, just as the wisdom, spirit and vision of the Bible influence the direction of their philosophical musings, so too, the conclusions they derive from those musings influence the way that they interpret and understand the content of the Bible.

51 comments:

Anonymous said...

See my comments on Part I. There appears to be a hidden assumption in the approach of the Rishonim that reason is fixed and certain enough to provide an intepretive tool that was intended to be used in understanding the original meaning of the text. I believe that developments in philosophy and science over the past 900 years have proven that assumption false.

Mikeskeptic

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I responded in general in a comment to the other post. As to developments in science, certainly they have opened our minds to new dimensions of physical reality and to new ways of understanding it. But the ontological significance of these changes is not clear. Some, like Husserl, would argue that modern science represents a philosophical setback.

I for one am not in the least convinced that there have been substantial developments in philosophy, meaning ethics and metaphysics, in the past five hundred years. The proof is that neo-Aristotelianism is alive and well, as is Neo-Kantianism, Cartesianism, etc., etc.

Philosophy doesn't progress like science does. Many traditionalist philosophers would argue it regresses. I see it as moving in predictable cycles, from materialism to idealism to realism to materialism, etc.

littlefoxling said...

Basically, when your perception of facts contradicts the text there’s 3 possibilities
1. The text is wrong
2. You are misperceiving facts
3. You are misinterpreting the text.

If you are fair about it, you will decide which of the 3 is correct based on which has greater weight. You really shouldn’t have a generally methodology cause it’s going to depend on which is stronger in a case by case basis. Obviously, I think frum people are way to confident to discount possibility #1 given how little evidence there is to support it. But, in the case of the Rambam, #2 is also a likely possibility as his understanding of reality was obviously not very good. We, however, have a very good understanding of reality so that’s frequently not an option for us. I think #3 is often abused. Sometimes, it may be the right answer. In the example in question, verses about the hand of God, it is not such a bad answer, as the interpretation the Rambam gives is indeed plausible. However, in modern science religion conflicts, #3 is, in my opinion very abused. For example, the idea that the mabul is either a myth or a local flood are just ridiculous impositions on the text that can not be defended.

littlefoxling said...

I for one am not in the least convinced that there have been substantial developments in philosophy, meaning ethics and metaphysics, in the past five hundred years.

You are right. But, that's just because these subjects are, and always were, BS. Science used to be BS and progressed to a more solid phase. These soft subjects are still in their BS stage. That's why we really shouldn't be too scared if they contradict the text. So, our philosophy is wrong. We just made it all up anyway. What's the big deal?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, I agree that the local flood-mabul concept wouldn't be my first interpretation on a superficial inspection, but there are many, many features of the story that make it clear that there is some significant exaggeration going on. Even in the ancient world, they would have been well aware of the plethora of different animals that existed in the world, and how small the ark was relative to that.

Plus, there are precedents for the term "kol" meaning "a whole lot", such as in the dever plague where this is clearly the intent, and possibly several other cases too.

Finally, we see that Hazal routinely utilized this kind of interpretive method, even when they weren't compelled to do so by scientific data. They looked at the Torah as a repository of ideas waiting to be discovered, not an historical record. This is the foundation of midrash. So why should we feel the need to be super-literal readers, if they weren't?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Well, I wouldn't be that dismissive of philosophy. After all, don't you have the enlightenment philosophers to thank for your present worldview?

littlefoxling said...

Not sure that this is the place for a mabul discussion, but...

1. If it was local, why the need to bring the animals in the arc?

2. The verses say explicitly numerous times that it was global. See http://godolhador.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_archive.html for more details of the textual arguments.
3. One could interpret Gen 10:32 as saying that all man descend from Noah.
4. Gen 7:19-20 says the flood was 15 cubits higher than the mountains. A local flood would be lower than some mountains and higher than others. What then, does that number mean?
5. the blessings to Adam speak of dominion over animals. The blessings to the fathers speak of dominion over people. This is logical since Adam represents all people and the fathers only a subset. The blessings to Noah speak of the dominion over animals, suggesting he to fathered all people.

Yehuda said...

Plus, there are precedents for the term "kol" meaning "a whole lot", such as in the dever plague where this is clearly the intent, and possibly several other cases too.

Don't forget about Yishayahu 37:36 "...they woke up in the morning and they were all dead corpses."

Also, translating aretz to mean planet does not make too much sense. Aretz very often has a much more local meaning (for example: el haAretz asher areka).

Yehuda said...

We, however, have a very good understanding of reality so that’s frequently not an option for us.

Please, only speak for yourself. I for one do not want to be included. Considering the developments in science over the past 100 years it is very hard to say that. The general impression that I get from the books physicists write for laymen is that "we" know very little. (I apologize for nitpicking on the word we. I only did it to make a point. I am not trying to be combative.) The basic message: we know very little but we have to do our best to not interpret the Torah in such a way that would contradict what our eyes and ears (granted, with the aid of some very powerful instruments) tell us. After all, if the Torah tells us that our senses (sight and hearing) are the source of our certainty that the Torah is true shouldn't we be able to employ and trust our sense in its interpretation?

littlefoxling said...

Don't forget about Yishayahu 37:36 "...they woke up in the morning and they were all dead corpses."

What's your point? that סַנְחֵרִיבhimself did not die? I think there's a huge difference between the two. Th passuke you quote, וַיֵּצֵא מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה, וַיַּכֶּה בְּמַחֲנֵה אַשּׁוּר, מֵאָה וּשְׁמֹנִים וַחֲמִשָּׁה, אָלֶף; וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ בַבֹּקֶר, וְהִנֵּה כֻלָּם פְּגָרִים מֵתִים
is not ateempting to underscore the totality of the death but the largeness of it. Hence, kol can mean generaly all of them, but not every last one. This in contrast to Noach where the p'sukim are specificly saying it's everything.
כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁמַת-רוּחַ חַיִּים בְּאַפָּיו, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בֶּחָרָבָה--מֵתוּ.

littlefoxling said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
littlefoxling said...

Also, translating aretz to mean planet does not make too much sense. Aretz very often has a much more local meaning (for example: el haAretz asher areka).

What does this have to do with the definition of the word Aretz?

There's many words used to describe what was obliterated. Some examples:
1. Aretz (6:13)
2 .under the heaven (6:17)
3. All flesh that had life (7:15) (implying the flood was global)
4. churava (dry land)(7:22)
5. all the tall mountains under all the sky(7:19)
6. adamah (8:13)

Also, it is not just the use of this word or that word, but the constant repeating of the same points again and again. Also, it's the fact that you have so many separate indications that it was global. The need for the ark. The explicit verses etc. There's a reason no one ever even dreamed of local food till science forced their hand.

littlefoxling said...

The general impression that I get from the books physicists write for laymen is that "we" know very little.

Hey, I agree there’s a lot we don’t know. I agree there’s a lot of cases where modern science contradicts the Torah and we can’t be certain the science is right. Cases science might be overturned. But, in some cases we can rest assure the science is solid. For example, we know humans have been living for over 6,000 years. That fact will never be overturned by science since it is clearly accurate. You may say that this doesn’t pose a problem for the Torah since we can reinterpret Genesis 1. Fine. But, my point is that there are things science is sure about that will not be overturned.

Yehuda said...

There's a reason no one ever even dreamed of local food till science forced their hand.

I agree (I also agree with your point in the third post). All I mean to say is that many (not all) of the perceived contradictions between Torah and science are based on faulty readings (or choosing one plausible reading over another).

All six of your problems can be explained by the reading of aretz and kol already mentioned. I am not saying this is the only interpretation - only a plausible one. There is also the difficulty Rabbi Maroof raised before: how can anyone think "all" the animals could fit in such a small space.

An example of a faulty reading leading to a perceived contradiction between Torah and science is Migdal Bavel. Obviously (if we were to go by the chronology worked out by chazal) we can not trace the source of all languages to that event. However, none of the nine verses telling this story say that the events of Migdal Bavel are the source of all languages.

littlefoxling said...

It seems we are in agreement on the strength of science.

Obviously (if we were to go by the chronology worked out by chazal) we can not trace the source of all languages to that event. However, none of the nine verses telling this story say that the events of Migdal Bavel are the source of all languages.

True, but if the Noach and his family were the only survivors of a global flood, it would be highly odd if a current language predated the mabul.

All six of your problems can be explained by the reading of aretz and kol already mentioned.

And a lot of textual acrobadics.

There is also the difficulty Rabbi Maroof raised before: how can anyone think "all" the animals could fit in such a small space.

Chazal say that all the Jews fit around the stone to watch Moshe hit it.

People in that era were probably not approaching the text with the same perspectivce that we are. These issues might not have occured to them. Also, assuming the original author viewed it as a work of fiction, this would not concern him. For the people that took it as a work of fact, they belived it was divine so they did not have the luxury to ask the questions we can.

littlefoxling said...

Oh, and one more thing. Gen 11:1 does say that everyone in the Eretz had the same language. Our discussion of the word Eretz not withstanding, if you belive in a global food, it's highly unlikely there would be so many countries with so few people in the world.

Also, could you give an example where Eretz does not mean Country. I'm not saying there are none, but I'd like to see an example so I have a better sense of what you mean.

(The example you give does not count for it does not refer to a country as "the land," but rather "the land to which I will show you." In other words, there Eretz does not mean the entire Earth because the Torah itself limits the scope of the word by saying it only refers to a specific Country)

David Guttmann said...

Rabbi Maroof your explanation of the attitude of the Rishonim is excellent. I would add one more point. They saw the text as malleable and expected it to be adaptable to any future scientific development and understanding. For example in the story of creation to them the operative theme was God willing things rather than nature doing things because it is in its nature. That is why you have Vayomer, vaya'ar, na'aseh etc... all terms of choice, will and decision. That is why rambam says that even if the world was eternal the message would still remain the same. We would have to remove the Aristoteleian necessity and replace it somehow with God's will. Spinoza missed that and many interpreters of Rambam did too. Ramban and the other Rishonim operate from the same point of view.It is not that they distort the text, they look for the ontological message and read it into the contemporary understanding of reality.

they really read the core message rather than the outer presentation which is what the textual interpreters do.

Anonymous said...

>However, none of the nine verses telling this story say that the events of Migdal Bavel are the source of all languages.

Come on, you're not reading the story in context. According to the text, all of the 70 nations known to the ancient world are descended from Noach. The Tower of Bavel story is obviously an attempt to explain how all that diversity arose from the descendents of one man. The text specifically refers to Egypt as descended from Noach. The early history of Egypt is so well known that we even know the names of the kings of Egypt, their queens and their children stretching back in an unbroken chain beginning a thousand years before the Flood and ending two thousand years after it.

Mikeskeptic

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Regarding the Mabul:

1 - In reality, we have no idea when the mabul occurred. There is no doubt in my mind that the 2 sequences of 10 generations - one between Adam and Noah, one between Noah and Avraham - are not exhaustive. Ten generations is a dead ringer for a "summary genealogy" that is designed to convey the idea of upward transition. See for example the end of Megilat Rut, as well as my post on this site "10 generations and the problem of chronology."

2 - Even if we were to take the timeline literally, I don't see what's so difficult about assuming that "the land" means the land that the Torah is addressing throughout (i.e., the land inhabited by the descendants of Shet and Qayin) and that "all flesh" means all the people that the Torah has seen fit to mention (again, the descendants of Qayin and Shet).

Regarding the development of nations after the Mabul:

1 - First of all, I find it interesting that Mikeskeptic accepts the histories and annals of Ancient Egypt, which don't have material corroboration going back that far, yet suggests that the Tanach's history is completely unreliable. How does that work? What is your basis for assuming that their list of kings is anything more than mythological?

2 - Rav Gil had a nice post a while back that discussed different interpretations of the Migdal Bavel incident. One of the key themes that many of the approaches shared, if I remember correctly, was that "one language" means that they all had a common language, not that there were no other languages in existence at the time.

Finally, I think we need to refocus on the fact that the purpose of the mabul story is to teach ideas about society - the proper relationship of man to animal (Noah taking care of, yet being distinct from, the beasts), of man to his fellow (no murder and, during the mabul, no sexual activity), and of man to God (following His commandments and recognizing His kindness and justice). This is obviously a brief synopsis of the themes, but I hope my point is coming across.

With these stories, the Torah also instructs us in the importance of rule of law for creating a just society - hence, Noah receiving laws upon exiting the Ark.

Lastly, it shows us that diversity in language and outlook was necessary for humanity to grow -groupthink would have prevented mankind from developing intellectually and spiritually by inviting tyranny. Therefore, rather than allowing humans to settle in a monolithic state that would have stifled individuality, God saw fit for man to be spread out across the globe and to create different cultures and societies that would allow great spirits like Avraham to flourish.

The fact that the Torah uses dramatic stories to convey its points is part of its pedagogical method. Its narratives are profound in their conceptual content and, though we take many of the ideas they contain for granted today, they were literally revolutionary in the ancient world. To debate endlessly about the minutae of the story as if the purpose of the Torah was to serve as a divine history book is to lose the proverbial forest for the trees.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Mikeskeptic, as an addendum, there is a much deeper lesson hidden in the 70 nations that you are missing. They are parallel to the 70 members of Yaaqov's family who descend into Egypt and become a great nation, subsequently being divided up into "subnations" of shevatim. So don't be so quick to assume everything in the Torah is "obviously" trying to communicate the meaning that they taught you in second grade!!!

Yehuda said...

I believe Rabbi Maroof answered all the questions Mike asked on me. It does raise an interesting question: should we assume that the Torah must be internally consistent OR can we ignore inconsistencies (because the purpose of the Torah is not to give a "history").

For example if we read the chronologies absolutely literally than Avraham was about 48 years old when the Tower of Bavel incident occurred. If we follow the first approach then this could be taken as a proof for what the Torah's intention was (or better not) in telling this story. Namely, that the events of the Tower of Bavel were not the "global" source for "all" language.

OR we could say: we don't care because the Torah is not trying to teach history (it is mashal hakadmoni - as explained my Rabbi Maroof and please carefully read what he said).

I certainly think there can be a synthesis of these two approaches but it is certainly not always easy. Rabbi Maroof, I would love to hear your thoughts on this (even though you have already discussed this point from many different angles - I still enjoy it).

littlefoxling said...

RJM,

Like XGH, I have great respect for you and actually do find your theology more compelling than most frum people’s. Nonetheless, I am most definitely not compelled, so forgive me if my arguments are articulated with some degree of force.


There is no doubt in my mind that the 2 sequences of 10 generations - one between Adam and Noah, one between Noah and Avraham - are not exhaustive.

This is a huge imposition on the text which states explicitly “so and so begot so and so.” Moreover, the data is presented as a statistical geological table. Moreover, the data is presented a second time, with no significant changes, in Divrei HaYim as part of the technical genealogical history of Israel. Moreover, the text even states the age of the father at birth, which would be odd if it meant he had a descendant. Moreover, it is obvious that the generations from Adam to Noah are parallel to the generations from Kain to Lemech and those generations could not have taken the eons you suggest for Kain had to live throughout. Can you bring an example where a genealogical table is presented in the manner you suggest. In truth, there is nothing internally in the text that even suggests that the generations are anything but exhaustive and actually I don’t know of anyone who interpreted it otherwise before science came along. Yet, you have no doubt in your mind that they are not exhaustive. If you are basing yourself on contradictions from science, fine. If you are basing yourself on textual sources, I have no choice but to conclude that you are biasing your reading based on scientific discoveries.

Ten generations is a dead ringer for a "summary genealogy" that is designed to convey the idea of upward transition.

Or that the whole work has nothing to do with reality and is fiction, myth or mushul. I believe, for example, that a close mathematical analysis of the ages at the time of birth suggests that we are dealing with fictional data. But, that is another discussion.


See for example the end of Megilat Rut

Yes, another reason to doubt the divinity of Tanach.

Even if we were to take the timeline literally, I don't see what's so difficult about assuming that "the land" means the land that the Torah is addressing throughout (i.e., the land inhabited by the descendants of Shet and Qayin) and that "all flesh" means all the people that the Torah has seen fit to mention (again, the descendants of Qayin and Shet).

1. Please give an example where Eretz means Country and the Country is not specified. Even if there are some, it is certainly not the majority.
2. Why were 2 of every species needed?
3. The emphasis of the text is on the totality of the flood, with the notion of all life repeated again and again.
4. The expression “under the sky” is used numerous times
5. The dimensions of the flood being “over the mountains” is not possible for a local flood which must be surrounded by mountains taller than it (remember, the flood lasted for a year)
6. the phrase, all that has life in its nose on dry land, or similar ones, are used numerous times.
7. The simple reading of the text (10:32) after the mabul is that Noach is the father of all humans, implying the rest were eliminated. Above I gave corroborating evidence to this interpretation.

Many of these we have stated before. You have either not responded to them or responded to them poorly. I could continue to list arguments but I see no point. There is really no possibility that the flood is anything but global.

First of all, I find it interesting that Mikeskeptic accepts the histories and annals of Ancient Egypt, which don't have material corroboration going back that far, yet suggests that the Tanach's history is completely unreliable

I know nothing about Egyptian history, so I don’t know if it is corroborated by other evidence, but there are several weaknesses to the Torah’s account just off the cuff:
1. It speaks of miracles, so it is not credible
2. It is not written by Egyptians, so how would they know about Egyptian history?
3. By its own admission, it was written thousands of years after the events in question.
4. It contradicts our general understanding of anthropology and history.

I don’t know what the Egyptian evidence is and how credible it is, but the Torah’s account is most definitely not a credible piece of historical evidence.

Rav Gil had a nice post a while back that discussed different interpretations of the Migdal Bavel incident. One of the key themes that many of the approaches shared, if I remember correctly, was that "one language" means that they all had a common language, not that there were no other languages in existence at the time.

Again, I’m not sure that this helps. Accepting the mesorah means we have to believe that all cultures descended from one man 4,000 years ago.

no sexual activity

The Torah never even says this. So, the point of the story is not even stated in the story. Yet, the point that is stated dozens of times again and again is not even accurate. When you take that sort of liberty you can make the text say anything you want which means the text actually means nothing at all.

Mikeskeptic, as an addendum, there is a much deeper lesson hidden in the 70 nations that you are missing. They are parallel to the 70 members of Yaaqov's family who descend into Egypt and become a great nation, subsequently being divided up into "subnations" of shevatim. So don't be so quick to assume everything in the Torah is "obviously" trying to communicate the meaning that they taught you in second grade!!!

Yes, but, as is often the case, the 3rd grade answer is taught in 3rd grade because it is explicit in the text. Your answer has no basis at all.

littlefoxling said...

Oh, and an addendum.

It seems logical to me, that the word Eretz means the same thing in the Mabul story as it does in Gen 9:1 and its fulfillment in Gen 10:32. In fact, there can be no doubt that 10:32 is referring to the same Erertz as the mabul is. So, the areas described in Gen 10 must have been flooded. Since the flood lasted for 1 year, that is enough time for the waters to seek the lowest ground, so we must find a circle of mountains around the area in Gen 10 high enough to block the water. How wide is the area in Gen 10?

1. It includes the islands in the Mediterranean (10:5). Since all the oceans are connected, that means the entire global sea level rose by the amount of the flood.
2. It includes Egypt, Israel, presumably Babylonia, and many other areas I am not familiar with.

How tall were the waters? At least 15 cubits higher than something. Even if we assume that something was sea level, we still must be higher than “the mountains” and the fact that all life was obliterated and only after the waters subsided did the Teivah hit a mountain (arrart? anyone know what that is?) suggests it may have covered all peeks in the area. In any event, Mount Catherine in the Sinai is 8,625 ft tall. So, we are talking about a global rise in sea level of over 8,000 feet. Of course, it’s still possible that areas in the Himalayas escaped. But, I fear many of the geological arguments would still stand against such a devastating flood. I am not Earth scientist, but I presume most of the earth would be destroyed by such a flood.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, I am very pressed for time today, so I must be extremely brief. Maybe this line of thought can be picked up again after Shabbat. Let me reciprocate your kind sentiments and say that I have found our discussions over the past few weeks to be enjoyable and thought provoking as well.

With regard to the genealogies, my interpretation would have been reasonable and compelling without scientific input. After proposing it, I discovered that several other Biblical scholars have also taken this view, and have adduced examples from other Ancient Near Eastern literature that seem to support it. In terms of Tanach, the Book of Ruth is a perfect example of this type of summary genealogy. In fact it is clear from Hazal in Pirke Avot, and even clearer in Avot D'Rabbi Natan (not Slifkin :) ), that they understood these genealogies as designed to teach ideas, not to provide historical details.

Think about it this way: If there were 1000 generations between Adam and Noah, do you think the Torah would spend time recording them? What objective would be served by that?

As an aside - LF, the book of Ruth has no "divinity", nor do any other books of Ketuvim. Being composed under ruach haqodesh is not the same as "divinity". Ezra, for example, put genealogical information into Divre Hayamim that clearly contradicted other data in Tanach. He did this intentionally and for a reason, and it is noted by Rashi explicitly who offers a justification for it, yet no one questioned the inclusion of Divre Hayamim in Tanach.

With regard to Mabul issues, most of your questions are rooted in the assumption that the Torah is a literal historical text rather than a dramatic presentation of an event designed to teach a lesson. It is clear that Hazal understood the text in the latter way. That is why they debated, for example, whether or not the Mabul affected Eretz Yisrael. They weren't bothered by the fact that this would contravene the literal meaning of the text, because they approached the Torah philosophically, not simplistically.

Skeptics define the meaning of the Torah by its superficial content and then attack it. But our mesorah never regarded the superficial meaning as paramount or sacrosanct. This is not an innovative approach. It is the traditional approach.

You cannot cast away the Jewish framework for understanding the text, determine what it means based upon your own literary impressions, and then question it. Because then you are no longer criticizing the Torah but a caricature of it that you have created.

Shabbat Shalom. I look forward to continuing our dialogue next week.

Anonymous said...

>1 - In reality, we have no idea when the mabul occurred. There is no doubt in my mind that the 2 sequences of 10 generations - one between Adam and Noah, one between Noah and Avraham - are not exhaustive. Ten generations is a dead ringer for a "summary genealogy" that is designed to convey the idea of upward transition. See for example the end of Megilat Rut, as well as my post on this site "10 generations and the problem of chronology."

My main point was that the fact that the story insists that all of the known nations are descended from Noach clearly indicates that the flood was worldwide, not local. While the word "eretz" standing alone may be ambiguous, I have serious trouble with the position that the story, taken as a whole, is not about a global flood. Your criticism of my reliance on the list of kings is well taken, but that was a throwaway. The bottom line is that the story is a global flood story and that the scientific evidence against a global flood that wiped out all of mankind is overwhelming. That means either the author was wrong or he was writing fiction. Either way, you need to tell me how we're supposed to be sure that the Exodus and Sinai are more historical (or could those also just be morality tales).

Mikeskeptic

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, just before I sign off for today, let me add that I do not offer these kinds of interpretations only in response to historical/scientific problems. I think this method of interpretation in generally correct. So for example, when the Torah says that every bechor of Egypt died, I do not necessarily assume that that is literal. And yes, even though it says "ki eyn bayit asher eyn sham met", I still hold that it is a rhetorical flourish and may not be absolutely factual and literal. It could be that a whole lot of bechorim died, not necessarily every last one. And the same goes for other terms in the Torah that are dramatic or broad - we have a right to question, in every case, whether they are literal or just for effect.

littlefoxling said...

Mikeskeptic,

e-mail me

littlefoxling@gmail.com

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Mike, I still disagree with your assumptions in reading the flood story. I think it's more ambiguous than you suggest. But be that as it may, the difference between the mabul and YT"M is actually pretty straightforward. The essence of the Torah is the system of mitsvot, as emphasized repeatedly in Tanach from Shemot on. By contrast, the early stories are there to provide us with a theological orientation to science, anthropology and history, not to substitute for those areas of study. Since the events of YT"M and Sinai are the actual basis of the commandments themselves and they therefore must be literal. The later stories of the Patriarchs are there to give us an idea of the evolution of the Jewish nation and to provide exemplars of conduct, good and bad, reflected in their successes and their failures. Because of their obvious link with the story of YT"M, they are clearly literal as well.

Anonymous said...

>Mikeskeptic, as an addendum, there is a much deeper lesson hidden in the 70 nations that you are missing. They are parallel to the 70 members of Yaaqov's family who descend into Egypt and become a great nation, subsequently being divided up into "subnations" of shevatim.

I've heard this idea before, but in the reverse. That is, the Torah listed Jacob's descendents as 70 (by including some grandchildren, some girls, and one who may even have been born afterwards) in order to match the 70 nations of the world, which was the generally accepted number of nations in those times.

Mikeskeptic

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Ultimately, the point is the relationship between the two ideas - the Jewish people embody the future of humanity, intellectually and morally speaking, and therefore a parallel is created between them and the nations of the world. The same is true with the use of the number 12 among descendants of Avraham.

Anonymous said...

>Since the events of YT"M and Sinai are the actual basis of the commandments themselves and they therefore must be literal. The later stories of the Patriarchs are there to give us an idea of the evolution of the Jewish nation and to provide exemplars of conduct, good and bad, reflected in their successes and their failures. Because of their obvious link with the story of YT"M, they are clearly literal as well.

A few comments:

1. You have already conceded that details of the exodus are likely figurative, e.g., the death of all the bechorim. Thus, I must assume that when you say these stories are literal you mean only that the central facts of YTM are historical.

2. Your position on including the later patriarch stories as necessarily historical highlights the difficulties of the sort of line drawing the Rambam's method requires. If the purpose of these stories is to teach moral lessons, then they clearly need not be literal. But you are forced into treating them so because of their "obvious link to YTM."

3. Where do you draw the line between "earlier" and "later" stories of the patriarchs and how could you ever draw such a line given the "obvious link" of the earlier stories to the later ones?

4. You say that the events at YTM and Sinai are the basis for the commandments and therefore must be literal. Does it follow that any story that serves as the basis for a commandment (e.g., Jacob's wrestling match with an angel) is a real event? Couldn't the story just be a tool to explain the symbolism of the commandment?

5. Your approach assumes that the commandments themselves are literal rather than being broader moral lessons clothed as specific examples. However, this assumption is not required by the text and wasn't even always accepted by Chazal. They were apparently willing to interpret commandments nonliterally when reason required it. So how can you be certain that the exodus is really not just a story about the meaning and nature of human freedom and that the commandments commemorating it aren't really just symbolic reminders of the various moral lessons the story teaches?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

1. You have already conceded that details of the exodus are likely figurative, e.g., the death of all the bechorim. Thus, I must assume that when you say these stories are literal you mean only that the central facts of YTM are historical.

Yes, actual events depicted in narrative prose.

2. Your position on including the later patriarch stories as necessarily historical highlights the difficulties of the sort of line drawing the Rambam's method requires. If the purpose of these stories is to teach moral lessons, then they clearly need not be literal. But you are forced into treating them so because of their "obvious link to YTM."

Again, I take the ten-generation- marker between Noach and Avraham, which is not repeated anywhere else in the narrative, to be a sign that from Avraham on, the story is entirely historical - although it is given in didactic, narrative form not as a technical historical account.

3. Where do you draw the line between "earlier" and "later" stories of the patriarchs and how could you ever draw such a line given the "obvious link" of the earlier stories to the later ones?

I didn't mean to distinguish between earlier and later stories of the Patriarchs, only between early stories such as the "prehistory" in the beginning of Beresheet vs. the late stories, i.e., from Terah and Avraham on.

4. You say that the events at YTM and Sinai are the basis for the commandments and therefore must be literal. Does it follow that any story that serves as the basis for a commandment (e.g., Jacob's wrestling match with an angel) is a real event? Couldn't the story just be a tool to explain the symbolism of the commandment?

In the case of Jacob's experience, it is not only possible but probable, because it was a personal transformation that he had. But the transformation did occur, in whatever form. I take it as having been a prophetic vision, but it doesn't matter so much. Something happened that needed to be recalled.

In the case of YT"M, it is national history the occurrence of which is pointed to as the basis of the entire system. You cannot tell people to observe mitsvot in order to commemorate experiences they or their ancestors never had. Nor can you tell a nation to recognize and be devoted to God because of His extracting them from bondage in Egypt if in fact He never did.

5. Your approach assumes that the commandments themselves are literal rather than being broader moral lessons clothed as specific examples. However, this assumption is not required by the text and wasn't even always accepted by Chazal. They were apparently willing to interpret commandments nonliterally when reason required it. So how can you be certain that the exodus is really not just a story about the meaning and nature of human freedom and that the commandments commemorating it aren't really just symbolic reminders of the various moral lessons the story teaches?

Because there is absolutely no indication in the text or anywhere else that this is the case. In fact, reason would require the opposite here - taking YT"M as an allegory would lead to absurd conclusions. Combine this with what I said on #4. Plus, the Hazal had an extensive mesorah about mitsvot, so we cannot presume to know when they were using reason to interpret pesukim and when they had a clear, factual tradition to that effect.

littlefoxling said...

Rabbi Maroof,

I've done a post with some of the data you requested considering our conversation about Eidah.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

LF, thanks, I saw it, but the chart did not appear for some reason. I will comment about this further on your blog.

littlefoxling said...

That's strange, and a shame. The chart was the whole point of the post! I've remedied the situation.

Yehuda said...

I just made three new posts. Take a look.

Anonymous said...

RJM said: Because there is absolutely no indication in the text or anywhere else that this is the case. In fact, reason would require the opposite here - taking YT"M as an allegory would lead to absurd conclusions.

I couldn't have said it any better. Now just apply that insight to Creation, the Flood, and the Yower of Bavel, and you'll see where I'm coming from. Chazal believed all of those were historical too.

Mikeskeptic

Baal Habos said...

>Thus, if through reasoning the Rambam arrives at certain conclusions about prophecy or angels, and he is confident that his conclusions are well-founded and accurate, he perforce assumes that the Tanach will fit in with his theory.

R. Maroof, firstly I'd like to thank you for this series, it is a good introduction and open my eyes to a subject that I literally paid no heed to before, namely philosophy. I hesitate to comment because I'm so new to this, but what the heck. Also, I did not read through all the comments in this post. I may do so at a later date.

>Thus, if through reasoning the Rambam arrives at certain conclusions about prophecy or angels, and he is confident that his conclusions are well-founded and accurate, he perforce assumes that the Tanach will fit in with his theory

As LF stated in comments in the first of this series, this all makes a strong presumption that the Torah is true. But besides that, and of course I know I'm not a Rambam, but what gives him the right to re-interpret the text (in ways that had not been done for the 1500 years before him) because he has difficulty reconciling the text to the reality of his age. And once he gets that license, might I suggest that today, we all have permission to do the same (after all, we're no slouches in this day & age) and what prevents me from saying it's all allegory. What prevents me from coming up with my own meaning and understanding of the events that transpired

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

But when it comes to Scriptural interpretation, aside from the explanation of the mitsvot and fundamental philosophical principles of our religion, we are not obligated to follow the opinions of Chazal. They argue amongst themselves on many similar issues, in some cases debating whether certain incidents in Tanach are allegorical or literal. And, as Abarbanel writes in his intro to Nach with reference to identifying the authors of Biblical books, if Chazal could argue about these things, why can't we?

In my opinion, as I've said before, there are many reasons for interpreting the Mabul as a local flood to begin with - that is to say, there are many hints in the text to indicate that this is the case, and those who oppose this analysis are mistaking dramatic embellishment for literal truth.

Regarding Maaseh Beresheet itself, Chazal never held it was an historical account of creation. The authors of the midrashim and the Rishonim, who lived long before the advent of modern science, never understood the narrative in this manner. They approached it as a theological/philosophical text. Thus, we need not have qualms about explaining it allegorically, even if our allegorical interpretations go further than, or are at variance with, what the Chazal believed. They were integrating the Torah view with science as they knew it, and they would have expected us to do the same in our time.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

BHB, when I wrote my last comment it was actually directed to Mike; but in a way, it addresses your point as well. Peruse the other comments here and you'll see that your objections have indeed been raised already.

I will comment further...But I have to run, my wife is summoning me upstairs to watch the kids.

Baal Habos said...

>BHB, when I wrote my last comment it was actually directed to Mike; Peruse the other comments here and you'll see that your objections have indeed been raised already.

Fair enough. I started doing so but before I finish I wanted to extrapolate my thoughts a tad further. (I checked your post about the ten generations being summary history, etc.) What also bothers me about all this post-reinterpretation is if we have license to reinterpret in ways that the sages of prior generations did not, then why do we not also have license to re-interpret Halacha? Why are we bound to the Bati Dinim of the past? In essense this reinterpretation that is proposed (and the Rambam appears to do), strokes me as similar to Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

What also bothers me about all this post-reinterpretation is if we have license to reinterpret in ways that the sages of prior generations did not, then why do we not also have license to re-interpret Halacha? Why are we bound to the Bati Dinim of the past?

This is an excellent question. The Rambam takes it up in his intro to the Commentary on the Mishnah, as well as his intro to Mishneh Torah. Many people become impatient with these crucial distinctions and this is where they throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In essence, the answer is as follows:

The authority of the Baale Mesorah is derived from the verse in Devarim, "Al Pi Hatorah Asher Yorucha,etc." This verse teaches that the views of the Chachamim must be heeded in their interpretations of the mitsvot and if they promulgate rabbinic laws.

However, nowhere in the Torah does it tell us that the Chachamim have the authority to give definitive interpretations of the non-normative passages in Tanach. In fact, even in the area of halacha, one is not required to believe that, say, Bet Hillel's position is correct; you are merely expected to follow it in practice.

As Rambam explains, the study of the science of the mitsvot remained a legitimate field of knowledge for so long because the Chachamim formed a unified body of scholars who explored, debated, and ruled on halachic matters together. This is analogous to the way in which modern scientific fields remain unified, in contradistinction to the social sciences, in which different schools of thought emerge and establish themselves as independent researchers who only interact with people within their paradigm.

It goes even further than this. As long as there is a Bet Din Hagadol - a living intellectual tradition of study and interpretation - even past rulings of the Bet Din itself can be overturned. Of course, as in any field of knowledge, the basic building blocks of the system are not disputed by scholars. But theoretical understandings that resonated with past generations of scholars may be replaced by later generations, yielding more creative piskei halacha.

However, as the Rambam explains, with the sealing of the Talmud the "science" of Torah study changed dramatically. It became focused on "reconstructing" the theories and ideas of the Baale Hamesora as recorded in the text of the Talmud, which was the last vestige of the "unified mesorah" that existed previously. This is what all the discourse in Rishonim and Acharonim revolves around.

Until such a unified mesorah is reinstated, we are tied to the final formulations of the last nationally recognized Baale Hamesora, the Chachamim of the Gemara. Certainly, when that happens, enormous developments in science will have an impact on the reformulation of many applications of halacha, and reexamination of Torah principles may lead to new and deeper theoretical formulations as well. (Of course, such formulations will stay within the framework of legitimate halachic analysis).

However, when it comes to the analysis of non-halachic elements of Tanach, there was never any concept of adherence to the rulings of the Bet Din Hagadol. The Rishonim frequently disagree with Midrashim, Gemaras and Onkelos, or quote selectively from them, and this is definitely not restricted to science-Torah issues. The Ramban, in fact, despite being a staunch traditionalist when it comes to explaining the halachic portions of the Torah, departs from Chazal's interpretations of other parts of Torah in every single parasha.(He briefly explains why this is justified in the Disputation at Barcelona). It is clearly an accepted methodological principle of Torah study.

Baal Habos said...

R. Maroof,
> The authority of the Baale Mesorah is derived from the verse in Devarim, "Al Pi Hatorah Asher Yorucha,etc." This verse teaches that the views of the Chachamim must be heeded in their interpretations of the mitsvot and if they promulgate rabbinic laws.

Why is this verse itself stuck in time? Why don't we re-interpret this. As explained in A letter to my Rabbi, we should do this especially in light of the fact that the traditional interpretation of this verse takes it out of context from the surrounding pesukim - See Devarim 17.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

BHB,

Be wary of the content in Letter to My Rabbi. The author's pronouncements of fact and interpretations of sources are often unreliable and inaccurate, probably intentionally so. I have been through it several times and recently wrote a response to section 7, which I circulated privately to a few people who requested it. His abuse of the sources, and of logic, is appalling.

In this particular case, his only objection is that the rabbis do not seem to be given any right to "promulgate" law, only to interpret and apply it. So that wouldn't impact our discussion so much, since we were focusing on the interpretation of Biblical law. Even still, his argument is flawed because the verses he cites are not the verses Maimonides uses to establish the authority of the Bet Din to institute new laws. Maimonides utilizes them as proof that the Bet Din Hagadol is the ultimate source of mitsvah interpretation for all of Israel.

Baal Habos said...

R. Maroof,
Understood. But it makes no difference what the authority is. I was simply using the Letter as a back up, but my question remains even without it. If 1500 years after the Torah is given, Rambam and others can re-interpret non-normative parts of Tanach, using their own Sechel, even though it's never been done before, why can't we go back and re-interpret other items. You refer to Rambam as the ultimate authority. That authority was granted by the Passuk. I want to re-interpret that grant of authority my own way. Which means I'm not bound to Rambam's understanding of that Passuk.

(Of course this does not address my main point which is KP related. Everything else is really noise, but I'll go along.)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

BHB,

The simple answer to your question is that the halachic system is a unified entity. One cannot just make a lateral entry into the framework of halacha and remove or change something without impacting the system as a whole. Even theories propounded by Tannaim and Amoraim must account for all of the available facts, thus preserving the harmony of the halachic science as a whole.

With reference to KP, which I didn't realize was your main focus in this discussion - the concept of reinterpretation and debate does not undermine the reliability of the historical tradition. Why not? Because the reliability of the historical tradition is based upon its acceptance by the people as a binding heritage, not by specific ways of interpreting the documents that record that tradition. Let me reproduce here a passage of my commentary on the Letter to My Rabbi that addresses this point:

"The concept of a mass tradition is not that the tradition remained oral in perpetuity, but that the account was accepted by the nation as its history. Nobody told me personally about their experience in the Revolutionary War, but it is a tradition of a national, historical event that our ancestors /predecessors participated in and is undoubtedly authentic. We now rely on documents to illuminate that history, rather than oral accounts, and we scrutinize the documents to derive more information or deeper interpretations. But the fact that we have a tradition that the events happened is not diminished by a reliance on the textual accounts for study and commemoration. It is not even diminished by argument about details, since it is the general acceptance of the event's occurrence that causes us to examine the texts written about it in the first place, and then to debate and discuss them. The value of the text comes from the tradition, but the text has its own autonomous significance as a source of more advanced knowledge of the events."

Anonymous said...

Rabbi Maroof, what is your email address?

BTW- It would be helpfull if it was listed in your blogger profile.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Thank you for the suggestion Anonymous, I added it to my profile.

Baal Habos said...

Rabbi Maroof,

Sorry, this thread slipped my mind.

>The simple answer to your question is that the halachic system is a unified entity....

I clearly hear the point you are making.

You make a distinction between Halachik Systems and Hashkafa but the way I see it, it's an artifical distinction. If the Rambam can come along (assuming he's the first) and change the Hashkofa so we feel entitled to change our understanding of the Torah based upon the science of the day (including Allegorizing parts of the Torah that were always taken as literal), then I feel free to do as I wish with halachick system as well. Especially seeing that the Passuk the Rambam uses to grant Chazal the authority is mis-applied.

What you're saying is the Torah is right no matter what. To prevent me from being ridiculed and being and looking like a fool, I will pull a rational explanation out of the blue sky to make things fit with my understanding by science.

You're trying to have your cake and eat it too. In that sense, the Chareidim are more consistent and I see why they reject this kind of thinking.

>With reference to KP, which I didn't realize was your main focus in this discussion.....

No, sorry, I did not mean it to be the focus of this topic in understanding the Rambam. It was indeed just as aside. What I was saying is I'll follow your thread of the Rambam & Spinoza with great interest, but it's really all theoretical. It's the TMS that's really at the heart of the matter.

Once someone accepts TMS, for whatever reason, then concern for Rambam VS Charedi type thinking becomes a practical issue.

But I do see what you're attempting to do. You're trying to use the rationality of the Rambam to reduce the size of the hurdle that KP needs to overcome. Nice try! But I don't really hear it. Too me there's still too much supernatural going on (Besides the technical problems, anachronisms, etc).

I take the whole package as one and weigh it. It's much too heavy.

Shabbat Shalom. And I would appreciate it if you send me you rebuttal of a Letter to my Rabbi. (Though there's much more than Chapter 7 that needs rebuttling. Is that a Yale word, rebuttling?)

Baalhabos@gmail.com

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

(Though there's much more than Chapter 7 that needs rebuttling. Is that a Yale word, rebuttling?)

LOL. Nothing like an inside joke across blogs!

Yesterday I started working on a post that addresses the questions you've been asking on this thread. Although I anticipate a hectic day that will prevent me from completing it in time, I hope to have it up by the beginning of next week. Then maybe we can make some progress in discussing this very complex issue!

Anonymous said...

Somebody earlier mentioned that there was not enough space on the ark for all of the animals. The ark was nearly as long as the Titanic and certainly wider than the Titanic. I would like to see the math that you used showing that there wouldn't be enough space for the animals to fit. I know that certainly you did not make that statement without checking, right? In advance to getting the answer (which I would really like to see anyway) who is to say that it they were not young animals? Although a giraffe (the tallest animal) is approx. 17 feet tall in adulthood, they are born at only 7 feet tall. And who is to say that Hashem, Creator of the world let's not forget, wouldn't make the ark stretch like the Bet Hamikdash? Oops, I forgot...you are only literal. Again, please, I would really like to see that math showing not enough space for all of th animals.