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.

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