Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rashi and Corporealism

FKM has a very interesting Rashi. Rather than get beat to a pulp for trying to reason at this time of night, perhaps you can give me some insight into why this hasn't received more attention?
A Tanna stated: ‘This [that one may read sitting] is not the case with the Torah’. Whence this rule? — R. Abbahu said: Because Scripture says, But as for thee, stand thou here by me. R. Abbahu also said: Were it not written in the Scripture, it would be impossible for us to say it: as it were, the Holy One, blessed be He, also was standing (Megilah 21a, Soncino Tran.)
To which Rashi comments:
כביכול נאמר בהקדוש ברוך הוא כבאדם שיכול להאמר בו כן

My Talmudic Aramaic isn't the greatest. What am I missing?

Academic Approach and Emunas Chachamim II:

As I'm sure your all aware, Rabbi SIifkin has written a challenge to my article Academic Approach and Emunas Chachamim. I have made a number of comments, some of which Rabbi SIifkin said were "well written", o.k. he said it was "long and well written" (emphasis mine). :)

One of the points which I did not address there I would like to explore further:

Yirmiahu then quotes Rambam:
The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation).

This is quite a remarkable incident of quoting something out of context. Let's look at the paragraph in its entirety:

You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so.

Let's see. Rambam could have claimed that Chazal were always speaking about the pnimiyus, or some other such contrivance, in order to have their words not be contradicted by science. Instead, he said that they sometimes took positions based on the faulty scientific beliefs of their era. So Rambam is doing exactly the opposite of what Yirmiahu is (selectively) quoting him for!

Citing the Rambam out of context is quite a charge. It is also a fairly easy one to make.

In order for a quote to be out of context information in the text not cited would need to change the meaning of the statement or limit it's applicability to the subject it is being used to support.

The "context" provided simply doesn't do that. My usage was in conformity to the context and meaning of the passage. The Rambam felt that when you can interpret someone's statements as correct then you should. Implicit in this admonition is that one should do so even when there is no evidence that their correct conclusion was based on sound reasoning, since to hold that their conclusion was accidentally true when there is evidence of correct reasoning is just blatantly dishonest.

In truth, Rabbi SIifkin is arguing against a strawman. He responds as though I have argued that Torah scholars cannot be mistaken, which was not the position I had argued. This is particularly true since I recognized that, in this instance, the Rambam was not making a distinction between Torah scholars and non-Torah scholars (The distinction I drew between Torah scholars and the general world was derived from our obligation to hold them in awe and the wisdom attributed to them for learning l'shma). In the context of my post, citing the whole passage could have given the mis-impression that I was using the Rambam's quote as distinctively applying to Chazal (in retrospect I don't think I made that distinction clear enough anyway).

There's more to be said, but that's a start for now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Much Ado about Nothing: Some thoughts on "Zero-the Biography of a Dangerous Idea"

Several months ago I received a copy of "Zero-The Biography of a Dangerous Idea" by Charles Seife. It was readable and entertaining, holding my attention long enough to read cover to cover in a few days. For the most part this is a new topic for me, and some of the mathematical discussion was above me, but I found it to be quite informative.

Nevertheless, it did not take long for my critical side to suspect that the story was somewhat dramatized for effect. It seems to me that the conflict presented by zero to the predominate western philosophy would, at times, require a greater recognition of the zero as a number (rather than merely a place holder), its relationship to nothing, or its relationship to infinity than was currently recognized.

My initial skepticism was at least somewhat supported not even halfway through the work:

Maimonides argued that there were flaws in Aristotle's proof that the universe had always existed. After all, it conflicted with the Scriptures. This, of course, meant that Aristotle had to go. Maimonides stated that the act of creation came from nothing. it was creatio ex nihilo, despite the Aristotelian ban on the vacuum. With that stroke the void moved from sacrilege to holiness. (page 75)

Of course Rambam made no such argument. On the contrary, the Rambam argued that the Scriptures could be reconciled with the idea that the universe had always existed. He explained that Plato's version of the eternity of the universe could be accepted had it been compelling. It was only the ancillary aspect of Aristotle's view view which proscribe miracles that the Rambam felt could not be reconciled with Torah. Even then, as I pointed out in my "Critique of Rabbi Jeremy Weider's "When the Torah Doesn't Mean What it Says" the Rambam doesn't say that the position is wrong because it contradicts Scripture, but rather that hypothetically if Aristotle's view (which negated miracles) were correct it would falsify Scripture and "we should be forced to other opinions.” (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25)"

When all is said and done, the book was enjoyable. I think that when taken with a grain of salt, most will come away with a better understanding of how zero showed up on the mathematical map. If Seife's presentation is somewhat stereotyped I don't think it is overly malicious. I think most inaccuracies can be attributed to someone trained in mathematics writing on history and/or a storyteller getting too caught up in weaving the story. Or maybe it's just me.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Academic Approach and Emunas Chachamim

נחמיה העמסוני היה דורש כל אתים שבתורה כיון שהגיע "לאת ה' אלהיך תירא" (דברים י) פירוש אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי כל אתים שדרשת מה תהא עליהן? אמר להם, "כשם שקבלתי שכר על הדרישה, כך אני מקבל שכר על פרישה" עד שבא ר"ע ודרש את ה' אלהיך תירא" לרבות תלמידי חכמים. (פסחים כב:ב

Just as we are expected to fear God, we are expected to fear Torah Scholars, Talmidei Chachamim.

Recently at the Rationalist Judaism Blog it was written:

Academic study analyzes the words of Torah scholars over the ages with the aid of examining the context in which they were written. What societal, cultural, intellectual, political factors could have been involved, if any?...If we are talking about reaching historical truth, then I consider the academic method far superior. (
In my estimation this runs afoul of the principle of fearing Torah Sages.

The problem is not in recognizing that a Talmid Chacham holds a problematic view, it is treating our Sages in a casual manner in which they are just like anyone else. The concept that learning Torah l'shma makes a scholar "great and exalts him above all things" (Avos 6:1, from the Artscroll Siddur) is exchanged for a view in which their views and opinions can be evaluated with the same suppositions we would use for any other shmo. One may find that such suppositions are correct on occasion, but to assume that they will be as useful as they are in a general context is not "awe".

The entire endeavor to "discover" a controversial position in the teachings of a Torah scholar doesn't strike me as reflecting awe of our Sage either. The Rambam writes "whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so." (Guide 3:14, Freidlander translation). While I don't suspect that the Rambam would demand that only a necessary inference should establish that an erroneous position was held, to cull dispersed writings to reveal an non-obvious error (while conceding that theoretically one's entire position could crash down like house of cards by the revelation of a single statement to the contrary) is not in anyway consistent with the Rambam's maxim.

If we are to claim that we accept Judaism, such an acceptance should impact how we evaluate questions pertaining to Judaism. Conflict is inevitable since, “the result of secular research and study will not always coincide with the truths of Judaism, for the simple reason that they do not proceed from the axiomatic premises of Jewish truth.” (Torah Im Derech Eretz, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch zt’l, page 415)." To apply the principles generally utilized in the humanities to those we view as atypical in their wisdom and piety is to commit the fallacy of Hasty Generalization (or betray that one does not view them as atypical in wisdom and piety). The fact that occasionally such hasty generalizations may turn out correct doesn't negate the fallacy of the method.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Critique of the "Conspicuous Absence" Argument

Recently Rabbi Natan SIifkin has published an article in Hakira entitled "Was Rashi a Corporealist?" in which he argues there is reason to answer the question in the affirmative. Being familiar with the assertion of the Raavad to the effect that there were those greater than Rambam the idea is intriguing, because who else, after all, could arguably be considered greater than Rambam than Rashi? Of course, the obvious problem with such a line of reasoning is that the Ravaad did not rate the Rambam as highly as we do, and all things considered I'm not really inclined to believe Rashi accepted a belief which we consider heretical.

The first of the several lines of reasoning Rabbi SIifkin used, which he called "Conspicuous Absence", has struck me from my initial review is that it is an "Argument from Silence" and further review has only made me feel that this is the case even more. Their are two criteria which need to be met for such a line of reasoning not to be fallacious, a) we must have sufficient reason to suspect that their would be evidence to the contrary and b) a thorough investigation reveals that no such evidence is to be found. The article fails to establish that there is, in fact, silence from Rashi on this matter nor does it establish that we can correctly infer from such silence that Rashi is a corporealist.

On the one hand, even if the argument could be constructed properly Rabbi SIifkin concedes that his research was not exhaustive (truthfully because of the vastness of Rashi's commentaries it would not be an easy task), "I have only studied a small portion of Rashi’s entire commentary on Tenach and Talmud, and it would have only taken a single citation to counter all the arguments that I presented. Yet none was offered" (page 26 of the PDF). The simple fact is that while it might be possible that his conclusion is correct, his concession mean that he has not established that there is silence on the issue from Rashi.

On the other hand, while he attempted to do so, he did not establish that we should expect Rashi to object to corporealistic language if in fact he was not a corporealist. Rabbi SIifkin argues that Rashi does object to anthropomorphic depictions of God, indicating that he felt it his duty to correct such false notions. When the depiction is not anthropomorphic per se, but simply corporealist (implying that God has a body) he does not similarly object. Rabbi SIifkin takes note of the distinction between anthropomorphic texts, which ascribe overtly human characteristics to God, and "Corporealistic" ones, which would seem to imply that God has a body. He nevertheless fails to recognize that if a corporealist could be provoked into commenting on an anthropomorphic text, then someone who like the Ra'avad did not subscribe to corporealism but was more tolerant/indifferent to the issue could likewise be bothered by the anthropomorphic implications of a text while being, again, indifferent to a similar text which "merely" implied corporealism. If Rashi could so comment as a corporealist then he could so comment as a Ra'avad style non-corporealist. Likewise, while R. SIifkin shows that Rashi is not afraid of repeating a point when necessary, he doesn't establish that he does so consistently or with regularity, such that we should anticipate his protest on any given relevant verse if he did in fact object. Given these considerations we do not have sufficient basis to anticipate Rashi to protest/clarify apparently corporeal wording in order to remove this line of reasoning from the Argument from Silence fallacy, even if the article had been the result of an exhaustive analysis of Rashi's writings.

Furthermore, it is not entirely clear that there is silence on the matter. Josh Waxman at ParshBlog cited Rashi on Isaiah 7:20:

The Lord shall shave with the great razor Heb. (שְּׂכִירָה) , comp. (Jer. 46:21) “Also its officers (שְׂכִירֶיהָ) in its midst,” which Jonathan renders: its great ones.
on the other side of the river Of those who dwell on the other side of the river, and of which of those dwellers? The king of Assyria, the head He will shave and the hair of the legs. Since it is in the construct state, it is voweled with a ‘pattach,’ (שַׂעַר) instead of (שֵׂעָר).
shall be entirely removed Will be destroyed. The shaving is the slaying, and the razor is the sword.
the head This symbolizes the king.
the legs [This symbolizes] his camps [from Jonathan].
the beard [This symbolizes] the governors [from Jonathan]. But our Rabbis said that this literally refers to shaving, and the removal of the beard is by singeing it with fire. “The beard” refers to the beard of Sennacherib, as is found in the Aggadah of the chapter entitled, ‘Chelek.’

It is obvious that Rashi understand the "pshat" to be allegorical in this verse:

Peshat explanations are recognized in many more instances by their appearance next to non-plain comments…The non-plain sense also appears, in the vast majority of instances, linked with its own terminology. In an aggadic context one may also find אגדה (an Aggadah or מדרש אגדה (an aggadic Midrash)…Not infrequently Rashi’s Peshat, though terminologically still undefined, contains a reference to it’s source. In the majority of such instances the source is the Aramaic version of the masoretic text, i.e. Onqelos on the Pentateuch and Jonathan on the Prophets. (Peshat and Derash in the exegesis of Rashi,By Benjamin Gelles, pages 20-23)

We must wonder, if you pardon my co-opting the term, what is bothering Rashi? Most of us would be inclined to understand this verse as allegorical as well, but we tend to think of God as non-corporeal. If Rashi was a corporealist it is not at all clear that he should present the peshat as allegorical, especially when Chazal seem to take it literally. After all Rabbi SIifkin argued regarding Gen. 11:5 which describes God as "descending" to "see" the Tower of Babel, "Rashi is citing the Midrash, which may well have understood Scripture non-literally, but Rashi does not show any concern (as does Onkelos) that one may interpret it literally." (page 96). In either instance God is, as it were, coming to Earth to perform functions which are, or in a manner which is, associated in humans. In our verse, however Rashi does not understand the more corporealist view as pshat even though there is traditional "basis" for doing so. Furthermore, even when citing the midrash found in San. 95b-96a he omits the most corporealist language. This would be entirely consistent with him holding a position similar to the Ra'avad that while he does not accept that God is corporeal, he may not be overly concerned that simple people have such a [mis]conception.

Insofar as I have not dealt with all of Rabbi SIifkin's arguments I do not presume to suggest I have refuted his position (although I'm inclined to believe the passage cited by R. Waxman seriously undermines it). What I believe I have demonstrated is that his initial line of reasoning is flawed and does not support his position. It is an argument from silence based on incomplete research. His arguments for why we should expect Rashi to comment are not conclusive enough to escape this fallacy. Even if his other lines of evidence are solid (or conclusive for that matter) this one is in no way מצטרף such that his position is stronger than the other lines of evidence are on their own.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

From the Archives: Document Hypothesis

Adapted from my notes on Wellhausen's Prolegomena:

page 9, P code tries to sound Mosaic Why wouldn’t D? (and if we were to argue that the switch from the first person account of Moses to a third person account in which Moses is speaking is the work of the redactor the problem is only greater. What motivation could those trying to present a work as Mosaic have for not only presenting the final work as uniformly un-Mosaic in POV but actually edit in such a way that the Mosaic portion is undermined?)