Sunday, March 09, 2008

More on Questions on the Essay by R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam

R. Chaim Eisen sent me the following regarding these past posts (I, II) in which questions from R. Moshe Meiselman regarding the attribution of a famous essay to R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam:

I confess that I am generally ignorant of blog postings and, apart from e-mail, am rarely even online (mostly, for lack of time and antiquated habits). However, Rabbi Student graciously sent me an anthology of posts [comments - GS] that pertained to my recent reply to Rabbi Meiselman's challenging the provenance of Ma'amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal. One point that seems hotly debated, which I feel demands clarification, is Rambam's views on the extent to which Aggadah is "binding" — that is, to what degree it has the status of dogma.

Click here to read moreI am unqualified to argue this on my own. Indeed, none of us should argue it, since this is a simple factual question, and Rambam's explicit statements should render any further discussion moot. I merely supply (through unabashed "plagiarism" of my recent article in Hakirah, volume 4, "Maharal's Be'er HaGolah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship" - link - PDF) some relevant source material, so the discussion in the blogosphere is better informed. The excerpt below is based upon pp. 158-61, including nn. 32-35, and pp. 169-70, n. 53, with slight modification:

Rambam justified abandoning his "Book of Correspondence" (on Midrashic and Aggadic passages), because, even "if ... a perfect man of [intellectual] virtue should engage in speculation on [those expositions and] … take[s] the speeches in question in their external sense and, in so doing, think[s] ill of their author and regard[s] him as an ignoramus — in this there is nothing that would upset the foundations of belief" (Moreh Ha-Nevukhim, "Introduction to the First Part," p. 10). We should emphasize that Rambam unambiguously considered such irreverence despicable; elsewhere (see Introduction to Perek Chelek, ch. 2, p. 120), he deemed its proponents more foolish than those who defend a facile interpretation of such expositions out of a misguided allegiance to the Sages. Evidently, though, it is critical to distinguish between viewpoints that are merely stupid and contemptible and those "that would upset the foundations of belief." Only subscribing to the latter category is grounds for severance of one's bond with G-d and Yisra'el and forfeiture of one's share in the World to Come. While Rambam certainly relegated wholesale rejection of Aggadah to the former category — even branding those who uphold it "accursed" (Introduction to Perek Chelek, loc. cit.) for having misjudged the Sages — he apparently did not ascribe it to the latter. Lest this contention be misconstrued, we must further stress that Rambam formulated his "Thirteen Foundations" of Jewish belief as prerequisites of inclusion "in the community of Yisra'el and … a share in the World to Come" (ibid., Conclusion, pp. 148-49). He obviously did not intend to negate the authority of Aggadic statements with Halakhic ramifications, such as those articulating fundamental doctrines. Nevertheless, despite this crucial caveat, Rambam clearly did not accord to Aggadah in general the status of dogma.

See also Moreh Ha-Nevukhim 3:43, (Guide, II, 573), in which Rambam posited that Aggadic expositions have "the status of poetical conceits; they are not meant to bring out the meaning of the text in question." He also referred derisively to those "ignoramuses" who think that such expositions are "the true meaning of the [Biblical] text and that the Midrashim have the same status as the traditional legal decisions" (ibid.). He emphasized this disparity — and the lack of a binding tradition underlying the former — at the end of his Mishneh Torah as well, in warning against a preoccupation with eschatology: "The Sages have no received tradition in these matters except [as they deduce] based upon the [Scriptural] verses, and they therefore have disputes in these matters. And in any case, neither these matters' order of actualization nor their details are a dogma of the religion. And a person should never occupy oneself with words of the haggadot nor prolong [engagement] in the midrashot that are stated in these issues and the like nor consider them fundamental. For they engender neither reverence nor love [of G-d]" (Hilkhot Melakhim 12:2). He further elaborated on this divergence in a responsum, regarding "words of Aggadah": "Are they words of tradition or rational arguments? Rather, everyone ponders their meaning, according to what appears to him in it, and it contains neither words of tradition nor [instruction concerning] what is forbidden or permitted nor any of the laws" (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam, ed. Yehoshua Blau [Jerusalem, 1958-61], II, 739 [Response 458, to R. Pinechas Ha-Dayyan]; also in Iggerot Ha-Rambam, ed. Itzhak Shailat [Jerusalem, 1995], II, 461).

Moreover, stressing the distinction between practical Halakhah and the nonlegal domain of Aggadah, Rambam echoed almost verbatim R. Shemu'el Ha-Naggid's observation (in the latter's Mevo Ha-Talmud, s.v. "Ve-Teyuvta"): "[In] any dispute among the Sages that does not lead to deed but pertains only to believing something, there is no basis for ruling Halakhah like one [side] among them" (commentary on Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:3; see also his commentary on Mishnah Shevu'ot 1:4 and Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, "Mitzvot Lo Ta'aseh," Mitzvah 133; R. Ya'akov ibn Chaviv also cited this position in Rambam's name, in R. Ya'akov's Ha-Kotev commentary on his Ein Ya'akov, Megillah 2b, § 1). In addition, in the aforementioned responsum, he also reaffirmed a principle previously articulated by the ge'onim R. Sa'adyah, R. Sherira, and R. Hai, as well as R. Avraham ibn Ezra, "One does not raise difficulties in Haggadah." He quoted this statement in the Moreh, in anticipation of subtle logical inconsistencies "in the Midrashim and the Haggadah" that may elude satisfactory resolution (Moreh, "Introduction," p. 20). Furthermore, in the same responsum, he explicitly ascribed this assessment to all words of Aggadah and Midrash, "whether they are written in the Talmud or written in books of Midrash or written in books of Aggadah."

Thus, Rambam felt empowered to write, in his famous epistle against astrology to the scholars of Montpellier (commonly but erroneously labeled as an epistle to the scholars of Marseilles), "I know it is possible that you will seek and find words of individuals from among the scholars of truth, our Rabbis, peace be upon them, in the Talmud and in the Mishnah and in the Midrashot, that indicate that at the time of a person's birth the stars caused such and such. This should not be difficult in your eyes; for it is improper that we should abandon operative Halakhah and go about [seeking] objections and resolutions. And likewise, it is inappropriate for a person to abandon words of sense, whose proofs have already been verified, and empty one's hands of them, and rely upon the words of a [solitary] individual from among the Sages, peace be upon them, when it is possible that something was overlooked by him at that time or that those words contain an allusion or [that] he said them at the moment [based upon] an incident that took place" (Iggerot Ha-Rambam, II, 488). He expressed the same approach in his responsum regarding free will: "And anyone who abandons the matters that we explained, which are constructed upon foundations of the world, and goes and searches in a haggadah or in a midrash or in the words of one of the ge'onim of blessed memory, until he finds a word through whose plain meaning he will refute our words, which are words of sense and understanding — is but knowingly committing suicide [lit. destroying himself]. And it is sufficient [punishment] for him what he does [thereby] to his own soul" (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam, II, 715-16 [Response 436, to Ovadyah the proselyte]; also in Iggerot Ha-Rambam, I, 236-37). Rambam did affirm in the following passage (loc. cit.) that the Sages' words, properly understood on a deeper level, in fact pose no contradiction to his position. Nevertheless, he clearly did not regard himself as necessarily beholden to their non-Halakhic statements. All these sources reaffirm our conclusion that Rambam did not accord to Aggadah in general the status of dogma.
Finally, we should note that, on this subject as well, the position of Ma'amar al Odot Derashot Chazal, attributed to R. Avraham ben Rambam, is identical to that of Rambam. Like his father, R. Avraham, in categorizing the Sages' "derashot" (expositions), viewed many as "poetic devices, not that their sayer believed that the meaning of that verse was the meaning of that exposition, G-d forbid!" (s.v. "Ha-chelek ha-revi'i, she-omer oto be-ferush pesukim"). In addition, like his father, R. Avraham concluded that expositions "that do not pertain to any of the principles of belief or laws of the Torah are not [based upon] a tradition in the hands [of the Sages]. Rather, there are those [stated] according to the mind's determination, and there are those that are appropriate and acceptable in the manner of poetic devices" (ibid.). After relegating several apparently historical expositions in the Talmud and Midrash to this domain, he added, "It is plausible that most of the expositions that are found in the words [of the Sages] of blessed memory are of this category; for this is the truth, to which only the mistaken or foolish will object. For this category of [the Sages'] words is subdivided into as many parts as the ideas [they address]; like the variety of opinions of poets, so these expositions are diverse, commensurate with the variety of opinions of the sayers and their wisdom" (ibid.).

In closing, I reiterate that I have confined my comments to one issue — Rambam's (and R. Avraham ben Rambam's) views on Aggadah's doctrinal significance. For a fairly exhaustive (and possibly exhausting) overview of the gamut of ge'onic and early rabbinic views on this subject, I feel obliged (perhaps narcissistically) to recommend my aforementioned recent essay in Hakirah (especially the footnotes). I am likewise refraining from commenting on the contention that the ge'onim intended only medicine and Rambam intended only astronomy in impugning scientific statements in Chazal. Serious study of the sources cited in my previous posting and the aforementioned essay should dispel this misconception. Note also that the view I presented was manifestly the position of, among others, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (in his correspondence with R. Pinchas Mosheh Elchanan Wechsler) and R. Eliyyahu Eli'ezer Dessler (as recorded in Michtav Me-Eliyyahu, IV, 355-56, n. 4). It is moreover indirectly supported by the comments of Chazon Ish, Yoreh De'ah, 5:3, on Rambam's statement (in Hilkhot Shechitah 10:12-13) regarding the list of maladies rendering an animal an Halakhic terefah. These source references — considered in depth, in their contexts — should suffice for any sincere and serious student.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More