Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Camel, The Hare, And The Hyrax IV


There is a critique circulating of some of R. Nosson Slifkin's books by an anonymous self-described student of R. Moshe Meiselman, speaking for himself and not for his mentor. This post will deal with his review of The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax. (No link provided because the author decided, on the day after Rosh Hashanah, to post online personal insults directed at R. Slifkin and me)

Oddly, the author chooses to deal with a section of about 10 pages (out of a 200+ page book) that deals with a side issue not really part of the book's main topic. The main theses of the book remain entirely unchallenged, other than the personal insults of R. Slifkin which presumably apply to the book as a whole.

The topic chosen by the author to contest is an analysis of the following passage from Hullin 60b (in R. Slifkin's translation):

Rav Chanan bar Rava said: The shesuah is a distinct creature, which possesses two backs and two spinal columns. But was Moshe a hunter or trapper? From here there is a refutation of one who says that Torah is not from Heaven.
R. Slifkin quotes two ways of explaining this passage: That the Talmud proves that the Torah is from Heaven from Moshe's knowledge of the existence of this odd creature called a shesu'ah or that the proof is that Moshe states that there are only four animals that have only one kosher sign, which is an amazing claim given the wide variety of species in the world.

The former is given by Tosafos and the latter is given by the Ramban and a number of Aharonim (Netziv, Malbim, Maharatz Chajes). The author of the critique harshly criticizes R. Slifkin for questioning Tosafos' explanation based on the argument that the simplest explanation (peshat) of the term shesu'ah in the verse is not as a distinct animal. The author states that the identification of the shesu'ah as a separate creature is part of the Oral Torah and cannot be denied. But countering this claim is exactly why R. Slifkin cited Targum Onkelos, which translates the verse differently. Clearly, if the Oral Torah defined the peshat in this verse (i.e. if this is among what the Rambam in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah calls perushim mekubalim), then Onkelos would render the verse as the tradition has it. The fact that he does not implies that Tosafos' explanation is not one that was received from Sinai, but is either a suggested (rather than received) peshat or a derash that fits into the words of the Torah (see Rashi, Gen. 3:8). R. Slifkin seems to favor the latter, that it is not a peshat but a derash. This does not mean that it is not part of the Oral Torah, in its expansive definition. But it is not a perush mekubal and, if it is a derash, it is not the simple meaning of the verse.

Furthermore, this citation of Onkelos undermines the author's explanation of Tosafos' argument. Because the explanation of shesu'ah was not a tradition received from Sinai, one cannot give it the same status as other explanations that are Sinaitic traditions. Therefore, there is no proof that the Torah is from Heaven. The Tosafos remains difficult.


The other explanation offered is that Moshe listed the only four animals that have only one kosher sign. This explanation, given by the Ramban and some Aharonim, and made popular by some contemporary outreach workers, is why R. Slifkin raised this entire issue. The simple fact, and this is not some theoretical exercise that can be disproven by a new theory but an observable matter, is that there are other animals that have one kosher sign just as much as some of the four listed -- for example, kangaroos, koala bears and capybaras. The existence of such animals poses a very difficult, seemingly insurmountable, challenge to this approach to the Talmudic passage.

What we are left with is a difficult Gemara. R. Slifkin, therefore, offers another explanation that he believes can be discerned in Rashi's commentary to the Talmudic passage. Namely, that the proof is from Moshe's intimate familiarity with the animals listed, not that he was familiar with every single animal in the world. After all, as the Gemara asks, was Moshe a trapper or a hunter that he should know such details about the eating habits of these animals? R. Slifkin then offers another possible explanation -- that the list of four is meant to be exhaustive of all animals found in the world of the original recipients of the Torah, i.e. the Near East.

Kakh hi darkah shel Torah (this is the way of Torah)! You analyze a passage, evaluate the commentaries, and if you are still not intellectually satisfied you offer your own explanations. Open any of the most popular commentaries on the Talmud (e.g. Hasam Sofer, Sefas Emes, Turei Even,...) and you will see the exact same approach.

The author of the critique takes great umbrage at R. Slifkin's dismissal of the claim that the list of four animals is exhaustive. However, the author ignores why R. Slifkin does so. If a hare is included in the list, then a kangaroo should be included as well. The author fails to explain why this does not make the claim of the exhaustiveness of the list of four at least "appear to be flawed."


More than anything, though, the critique is one that fails to acknowledge that different people use different language in expressing themselves. How dare R. Slifkin, the author asks, not use more deferential language when speaking of such great people? The simple answer is that there are different styles of writing. Compare, for example, the way the Meiri disagrees with the Rambam and the way the Ra'avad does. Different styles. Is R. Slifkin the Meiri or the Ra'avad? No, but that's not the point. Allow people some latitude in writing styles because if we start criticizing people based on their styles and not their ideas, then no one is free from attack.

As an aside, note that in my last post on this subject, back in June '04 and before any of this controversy, I linked to a correspondence between R. Slifkin and R. Zushe Blech (here) in which the latter writes: "I thoroughly enjoyed your book, and I find your explanations and theories beautifully explained and cogent."

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