Wednesday, September 23, 2009

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.

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