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.

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