Pesaq Without Resolution

In “Invoking Tradition” I suggested that the amora’im of the Yerushalmi would not add their own interpretations to the words of the tana’im. The traditions must be preserved in their integrity. (And in “On Nets and Pieces” I added that instead the Israeli amora’im saw their job as finding patterns that allow them to apply the quotes to other topics and situations.) Because they would not elaborate the original quote, there are many questions in the Yerushalmi left unanswered. Situations on the borderline between two received rulings would simply be left unresolved, the discussion closed with a question and the gemara moves on to the next topic.

A recent gemara is a case in point. Challah 2:3, Vilna 14b (daf yomi for last Sunday). First, this is actually the second time we encountered this discussion. (I lost the citation and gave up on finding it before publishing “Invoking Tradition”. The Penei Moshe points out that the discussion is of a Tosefta in Terumos ch. 3, and the entire section at the end of Challah ch. 2 appears in the Yerushalmi in Terumos 2:1 (10a-b). “Vehasam hu deshaicha, vehacha agav gereirah – it is over there that it belongs, and appears here only because it was dragged in” with the previous line which was needed. As we saw, this is part of the Yerushalmi’s preservation of tradition — rather than tamper with a quote, it is often given in context of any discussion it appeared within.

Now for the gemara itself. The case would take some background, and it’s actually not relevant to the abstract point I’m trying to make about pesaq in general. Let’s just take it for granted that there is a dispute between Rabbi Liezer [Rav Eliezer, as the Bavli would call him], and a group of anonymous rabbis.

רבי טבי רבי יאשיה בשם רבי ינאי הלכה כר’ <לעזר> [ליעזר].  רבי יצחק בר נחמן בשם רבי הושעיה [הלכה] כר’ ליעזר.  רבי הונא בשם רבי חנינא אין הלכה כר’ ליעזר.  רבי יוסי בי ר’ בון רב יהודה בשם שמואל אין הלכה כר’ ליעזר.  אתא עובדא קומיה ולא הורי אמר תרתיי כל קבל תרי אינון.  אמר ליה והא רבי יצחק בר נחמן <מודי> [מורי].  אפילו כן לא הורי:

Rabbi Tavi, Rabbi Yoshiah [both said] in the name of Rabbi Yanai: The halakhah is like Rabbi Liezer.
Rabbi Yitzchaq bar Nachman in the name of R’ Hoshaiah: The halakhah is like Rabbi Liezer.
Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Chanina: The halakhah is not like Rabbi Liezer.
Rabbi Yosi bei Rabbi Bun [i.e. Rav Yosi of the house of Rav Avin]  in the name of Shemu’el: The halakhah is not like Rabbi Liezer.
A case came before him, and he did not rule. He said: Both had an accepted [ruling] by two [rabbis].

Pausing here for a moment, it seems clear that because they lacked a way to clarify this halakhah, the amora’im treated the halakhah as one of doubt. Since there is testimony on both sides, there was no way to resolve the doubt. Continuing…

They said to him: But Rabbi Yitzchaq bar Nachman agrees [with those who say to rule like Rabbi Eliezer.
Even so he would not make a ruling.

Why not? Now he has a majority — 3 against 2 in favor of Rabbi Liezer’s ruling!

I think this illustrates how closely the Yerushalmi follows the laws of doubt resolution.

There is a rule in testimony that “terei kemei’ah” — a set of two witnesses have the same credibility in court as a set of 100. And if two testify for one party while 100 testify for the other, the two sides are equal. When it comes to cases that were under testimony, majority does not apply. (For a suggested logic behind that rule, see this entry.)

Here it is a dispute between people relaying testimony about the halakhah, and it would seem the gemara is invoking a parallel rule.

Halachic decisionmaking in the face of a question where you lack the tools to rule truly is handled as a case of doubt.

The open question is whether we today lack the confidence to give definitive rulings in situations where we do have the tools, and therefore treat cases as though there is doubt when that is not appropriate.

An example: There is a range of rulings on the proper length of an ammah. Is it more appropriate to use R’ Chaim Naeh’s smaller sized ammah when dealing with a minimum size to fulfill a rabbinic obligation and the Chazon Ish’s large ammah when looking to fulfill a Torahitic one? Or is it more appropriate to find a particular definition of ammah and use that consistently?

This question has to be asked case-wize. Before thinking of this doubt-resolution approach to halakhah, have we really exhausted our toolset for finding a specific ruling to follow?

When Science and Torah Conflict

(Initial post: With thanks to R’ Eli Turkel for providing some of the sources and all of the motivation for this post.

(Dec 21st: Significantly expanded to include sources I dug up for further discussion with R’ Zvi Lampel, who I thank as well.)

Obviously (I hope), the scenario described in the subject line of this post can’t happen. There is only one truth — even if we might have conflicting experiences within it — and thus science and Torah can’t conflict. E.g. Rabbi Yehudah haLevi writes (Kuzari 1:67):

חלילה לאל מהיות דבר התורה סותר עדות דבר הנראה עין בעין או דבר שהוכח במופת שכלי

G-d forbid there would be anything in the Torah which contradicts the testimony of something eyewitnesses or proven intellectually.

And similarly the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:25) compares why it is okay to say that anthropomorphic descriptions of G-d, such as “yad chazaqah — strong hand”, “vayeired Hashem – and Hashem went down” (as though He were within space) are idiomatic, but he did not take this approach to Creation. After all, Aristotle taught the eternity of the universe, so why didn’t the Rambam reinterpret the first chapter or two of Bereishis idiomatically or allegorically to conform?

We do not reject the Eternity of the Universe, because certain passages in Scripture confirm the Creation; for such passages are not more numerous than those in which God is represented as a corporeal being; nor is it impossible or difficult to find for them a suitable interpretation. We might have explained them in the same manner as we did in respect to the Incorporeality of God. We should perhaps have had an easier task in showing that the Scriptural passages referred to are in harmony with the theory of the Eternity of the Universe if we accepted the latter, than we had in explaining the anthropomorphisms in the Bible when we rejected the idea that God is corporeal. For two reasons, however, we have not done so, and have not accepted the Eternity of the Universe. First, the Incorporeality of God has been demonstrated by proof: those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise. But the Eternity of the Universe has not been proved; a mere argument in favour of a certain theory is not sufficient reason for rejecting the literal meaning of a Biblical text, and explaining it figuratively, when the opposite theory can be supported by an equally good argument.

Secondly, our belief in the Incorporeality of God is not contrary to any of the fundamental principles of our religion: it is not contrary to the words of any prophet. Only ignorant people believe that it is contrary to the teaching of Scripture: but we have shown that this is not the case: on the contrary, Scripture teaches the Incorporeality of God….

The Rambam thus gives two criteria — (1) that the philosophy be a solid proof, which he shows in the previous 10 chapters the argument for eternity is not, and (2) that the conclusion not defy “any of the fundamental principles of our religion… the words of any prophet.” But an actual conflict, in which a philosophical proof does contradict a Jewish teaching? Impossible.

You may have noticed a logical jump I made there. The Rambam discusses “fundamental principles” and prophecy. Why did I generalize that to “Jewish teaching” in general?  It is clear from other instances in the second section of the Moreh Nevuchim that the Rambam sees the meaning of prophecy to be prophecy as Chazal understood it, and not just a blank-slate read of the text of Tanakh.

For example, when discussing the celestial spheres in chapter 5:

The opinion of Aristotle, that the spheres are capable of comprehension and conception, is in accordance with the words of our prophets and our theologians or Sages.

Chapter 11, on metaphysics and ontology, the Rambam defines this same criterion as being “anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages”:

In the same manner the creative act of the Almighty in giving existence to pure Intelligences endows the first of them with the power of giving existence to another, and so on, down to the Active Intellect, the lowest of the purely spiritual beings. Besides producing other Intelligences, each Intelligence gives existence to one of the spheres, from the highest down to the lowest, which is the sphere of the moon. After the latter follows this transient world, i.e., the materia prima, and all that has been formed of it. In this manner the elements receive certain properties from each sphere, and a succession of genesis and destruction is produced.

We have already mentioned that these theories are not opposed to anything taught by our Prophets or by our Sages….

In discussing the other end of eternity, chapter 27′s discussion of whether the universe will end, again mention of our sages as to what is the Torah’s teaching:

There remains only the question as to what the prophets and our Sages say on this point; whether they affirm that the world will certainly come to an end, or not.

And in ch. 47 the Rambam points out that one shouldn’t take hyporbole in Tanakh too literally — again citing Chazal for justification.

Returning back to our primary example, his rejection of Aristotle’s argument for the eternity of the universe, let’s look at the very next chapter (26):

… But let us premise two general observations.

First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. …

Assuming the description of creation (as opposed to the fact of creation as a whole0 is allegorical is fine because Chazal did so, and being literal would lead to heresy. Continuing:

Secondly, the prophets employ homonymous terms and use words which are not meant to be understood in their ordinary signification, but are only used because of some other meaning which they admit, e.g., “a rod of an almond-tree (shaked),” because of the words which follow, “for I will hasten (shaked)” (Jer. i. 11, 12), as will be shown in the chapter on Prophecy….

The first obsercation is that our sages understood these first chapters of Chumash to include allegory. The second observation is that prophets used idiomatic expression, and in fact homonymity due to idiom is a strong undercurrent of the prophetic process.

We see that when the Rambam speaks of prophesy, and in particular in section 2 of the Guide and its discussion of prophesy and philosophy/science describing the same truths, he is speaking of how the ideas enter the mesorah, but not to the exclusion of the mesoretic transmission and development of those ideas.

So, in the case of incorporeality, the Rambam shows how our mesorah endorses his philosophical interpretation, and therefore the literal read bows to what is logically and mesoretically compelling. And in the case of eternity, the mesorah does not allow for the possibility, and the philosophy isn’t compelling, so there it’s the philosophy that bows.

Notice that within this model, the question isn’t literal vs. figurative readings of Tankh, but whether one has permission to go beyond a mesoretically supported reading. And there the answer is no — because the situation of compelling philosophy contradicting all mesoretically supported readings would never arise.

As I see it,  the often-asked question, “Would the Rambam have found a new interpretation of the Torah if the philosophy was sound?” is meaningless — the Rambam denies the the possibility of that happening. We would never require a new interpretation in response to real proofs, as the hypothetical — a solid proof of something which doesn’t fit the Torah as our mesorah explains it — cannot occur.

Note how the Rambam concludes the chapter. Freidlander’s translation:

If, on the other hand, Aristotle had a proof for his theory, the whole teaching of Scripture would be rejected, and we should be forced to other opinions. I have thus shown that all depends on this question. Note it.

R’ Yosef al-Qafeh (“Kapach”) renders it:

כי אילו הוכח החידוש, ואפילו לפי השקפת אפלטון, היה נופל כל מה שהעזו בו הפילוסופים נגדנו.
וכן אילו נתקיימה להם הוכחה על הקדמות כפי השקפת אריסטו, הייתה נופלת כל התורה ויעבור הדבר להשקפות אחרות.
הנה ביארתי לך שכל הענק תלוי בחקירה זו דעהו.

And Dr Yehudah Schwartz:

כמו כן אילו התאפשרה להם הוכחה מופתית לקדמות על-פי שיטת אריסטו, התורה כולה היתה מתבטלת, והיו מתקבלות דעות אחרות. הבהרתי לך אפוא שהדבר כולו תלוי בבעיה זאת. דע זאת אפוא.

I could only find Ibn Tibbon in PDF, pg 68. So rather than manually type in yet another translation, let me just note he also has “tipol haTorah bikhlalah” (the entire Torah would fall). You would have to take another hashkafah (Kapach) or religion (Schwartz). If Artisto had a solid proof to the eternity of the universe, he would reject “the whole teaching of Scripture”. “All depends on it.” Not just reinterpret the one pereq or two, but it would be a proof against Torah, and Torah would be demonstrated as wrong.

Reinterpreting something allegorically because of non-Torah arguments isn’t on the table. Either things work mesoretically, or we disproved prophecy as understood by the Oral Torah, and the whole enterprise of Yahadus would be undone. Since that is an absurdity, the Rambam concludes with a Reductio ad absurdum.

Explaining Tragedy

It seems to me, the overall question of theodicy and explaining why tragedy enters the lives of anyone but the most evil, can be addressed on two levels. Philosophically, the question is unanswerable. As I wrote a number of years ago (in “The Four Sons Encounter Tragedy“, under the wise son’s response:

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halakhah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

On the philosophical level, the question is unanswerable. This is the ultimate conclusion of the book of Iyov:

לח:א וַיַּֽעַן־יְהוָ֣ה אֶת־אִ֭יּוֹב מנהסערה (מִ֥ן ׀ הַסְּעָרָ֗ה)    וַיֹּאמַֽר׃
ב מִ֤י זֶ֨ה ׀ מַחְשִׁ֖יךְ עֵצָ֥ה בְמִלִּ֗ין    בְּֽלִי־דָֽעַת׃
ג אֱזָר־נָ֣א כְגֶ֣בֶר חֲלָצֶ֑יךָ    וְ֝אֶשְׁאָֽלְךָ֗ וְהֽוֹדִיעֵֽנִי׃
ד אֵיפֹ֣ה הָ֭יִיתָ בְּיָסְדִי־אָ֑רֶץ    הַ֝גֵּ֗ד אִם־יָדַ֥עְתָּ בִינָֽה׃

38:1 Then Hashem responded to Job from out of the whirlwind, and said:
2 Who is this that darkens counsel with words without knowledge?
3 Gird up please you loins like a man; for I will make demands of you, and you will acknowledge Me.
4 Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell, if you have the understanding.

And yet on the Mussar level, tragedy provides opportunity for growth, shaking us from our rut, giving us new tools in our avodas Hashem, teaching lessons.

The fact that the two levels differ means a few things:

First, this kind of lesson-taking should not be confused with finding the cause of our suffering. It’s one thing to say that the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash involved much baseless and purposeless hatred (sin’as chinam), and therefore we should learn from it to love our fellow Jew. It is quite another, in fact, to say that we know the Mind of G-d, that we know for certainty that the fall of the Second Temple was a punishment for this one sin in particular.

In fact, every time we find the gemara discuss a tragedy and associate since with it consistently we find a huge variety of opinions. Whether it’s all the various sins associated with the fall of each of the First and Second Temples, the list of sins and middos flaws that are given in the discussion of tzara’as, or the numerous opinions about what the sin was that leads to Dasan  and Aviram’s death.

Another case is the gemara‘s discussion of why a city suffer a tragic fire (Shabbos 118b-120a). The list centers on the burning of Yerushalayim, but discussed in the context of fires in general. It includes: Shabbos desecration (Rav Yehudah berei deRav Shemu’el), neglecting Shema (Rav Avahu), stopping child education (Rav Hamnuna), a loss of shame (Ula), not treating important people with the respect they earned (Rav Yitzchaq), not rebuking each other (Rav Amram), and a loss of honesty (Rava). Two variants on the above: disgracing talmidei chakhamim (R’ Yehudah) and the city not having children learning from their rebbe (Reish Laqish and Ravina).

The gemara appears to be grappling with a problem that they know they won’t fully resolve. Perhaps each amora was finding the lesson that was most useful lesson for their community and its shortcomings.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef spoke to his followers about the fire in the Carmel, and as is usual when he says something controversial, Rav Ovadiah’s words were repeated and spun by the secular media. ROY cites the first opinion in the gemara – a city is afflicted with fire because of a lack of Shabbos observance. I presume Rav Ovadiah’s intent was that the people in the audience work on their own observance. However, in the hands of the media, it was made to sound like the chareidi rabbi (not 100% accurate for a Sepharadic leader) was blaming the tragedy on the seculars.

R’ Moshe Shternbuch, the head of the beis din of the Edah haChareidis, gave a talk on the lessons of the fire. It was summarized by R’ Daniel Yaakov Travis for an anglo chareidi paper — probably Hamodia, but I’m not sure. Then it was put on line by R’ Daniel Eidensohn (whose name might be a little familiar from the book advertisement at the top of his blog).

Interestingly, and in contrast to Rav Ovadiah Yosef, R’ Shternbuch finds an issue that the fire could help us fix, even without any conscious religious or theological analysis — hubris.

There is an Israeli Chanukah song “Mi Yimalel“, which twists a verse that says “Who can tell of the mighty acts of G-d” to “Who can tell of the mighty acts of Israel / Yes, in every generation the hero will arise, the redeemer of the people.” The timing of the fire was on a holiday many Israelis interpret as celebrating a military victory and Jewish might.

The fire taught us that Israel — or any of us — are not capable of responding to every problem. Rather, “ein lanu al mi lehisha’ein, ela al avinu shabashamayim.” (We have no one upon whom to rely, except on our Father in heaven.)

And in practice, Israel was made aware of its unpreparedness. The message of modesty is there even for the most anti-religious to imbibe.

So, he too ties the fire to a sin. The questions I would ask:

  1. Do you (like me) find this less annoying that R’ Ovadiah Yosef’s declaration?
  2. If so, is it because it’s a humanist value rather than a ritual that is being pointed to?
  3. And/or is it because the connection is logical, that he’s effectively spelling out why G-d would choose this tragedy to impress a lesson. Without the need for metaphysics?
  4. And/or was it because he is focusing on tragedy as teaching, rather than punishment. (Not that I think there is a difference between these ideas when speaking of G-d.)

Feel free to answer in the comments section, although my primary point is to get you to think out and realize how you relate to these issues.

Tevel is Called Holy

The Mishnah in Maaser Sheini 5:4 discusses the obligation to be finished with all maaser by the Pesach after the third and sixth years of the shemittah cycle. The mishnah describes messages sent to remind people to remove the maaser from their crops, so that can give it out or destroy it before the deadline. The Yerushalmi (31b) opens the discussion of the mishnah wondering why the obligation to be able to say “I destroyed the qodesh from the house…” would obligate one to do anything to untithed crops, called tevel. The Gemara quotes R’ Hila repeating Shemuel’s answer, “זאת אומרת שהטבל קרוי קודש — this tells [us] that tevel is called qodesh.”

Think about this… Tevel, the farmer’s raw produce, is considered holy. Terumah and maaser don’t become holy, they are the separated-out portions of holiness inherent in the pre-tithed tevel, separating them so that the owner may eat the remainder. Just farming Eretz Yisrael creates holiness in the product.

The word in Hebrew closest to “secular” is “chol”. The root is the same one used for chal, as in the first mishnah of Megillah, where the mishnah discusses the dates on which the megillah is read, depending on which day the 15th of Adar, Purim, falls out — chal — upon.

Chol is a blank slate. One we can write holiness upon. Qedushah means separation. As Chazal comment on the verse (quoted by Rashi), “‘Qedoshim tihyu’ perushim tihyu — ‘You shall be holy’ — [meaning,] you shall be separate. But not separation from, but separation for. The farmer doesn’t create holiness by refusing to farm and leading a guru’s life atop the mountain. He does it by taking his farming and using it to develop G-d’s land.

Similarly, when Yaaqov fled from Esav, he risked returning back to get some “small jugs”. Rashi again quotes Chazal, saying “Tzadiqim cherish their possessions more than their own lives, because they avoid sinning through thievery.” As I wrote on that concept and the Yalqut Reuveini who ties it to other events later in history:

Proper business ethics isn’t “just” the permissable way to conduct business, it actually sanctifies the activity. And therefore, the pachim qetanim were sacred to Yaaqov, not to be simply left behind.

Which brings us to Chanukah…. The Jews lost themselves to Hellene values. To a religion where even the gods represent physical forces: Ares was the god of war, Hermes was the concept of change, Venus of love, etc…

And then they find the jug of oil. The jug of holy wordliness, of sanctifying the universe through halakhah. Not disdain for the physical or the beautiful, but knowing its value — as a tool. And with that concept the Chashmonaim revived Jewish loyalty, disbanded Hellenist oppression, and restored the concept of Jewish autonomy for the next two centuries….