Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Citation of Non-Orthodox Scholars

Academics frequently cite non-Orthodox and Gentile scholars in their analyses. On some occasions, traditional rabbis might find cause to quote a non-Orthodox scholar or even an Orthodox scholar who, unfortunately, fails to meet the ethical and practical standards normally expected of a rabbinic scholar. May they do this? Is there anything wrong with quoting a Conservative professor on a Torah matter? Does the forum of citation make a difference?

There is a rabbinic prohibition against eating a Gentile's home-baked bread. The exact details and historical observance of this prohibition are extremely complex (cf. Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah 112; ). The Gemara in Avodah Zarah (35b) relates that Aivu was known to eat bread baked by a gentile outside of the town's borders. Because of that, R. Nahman bar Yitzhak told people: "Do not quote from (or: speak with) Aivu because he eats the bread of Gentiles."

There are two versions of this text. In one ("mineih"), R. Nahman bar Yitzhak is telling people not to quote Aivu. In the other ("ba-ha-deih"), R. Nahman bay Yitzhak is telling people not to speak with him. Both texts are well attested among rishonim. However, "mineih" seems to have been accepted as the more correct version.

R. Nahman bar Yitzhak's statement, assuming the "mineih" version, is that one may not quote Aivu because he was doing something wrong. The implication is that it is wrong to quote someone who acts improperly. This conclusion was stated explicitly by R. Amram Gaon in a responsum. He wrote (Halakhos Pesukos min ha-Geonim, NY: 1959, no. 26): "We do not whip [i.e. punish] one who eats the bread of Gentiles but, rather, rebuke him. And it is forbidden to quote something from him in the Beis Midrash (study hall)."

This responsum of R. Amram Gaon seems to have been lost to history for a number of centuries. It is not quoted in any pre-moden Ashkenazic source and even early Sephardic texts do not hint to it. It seems to have been found by R. Avraham Ha-Yarhi in his travels throughout Europe, and his record of this responsum in his Sefer Ha-Manhig brought it to the attention of commentators and legal scholars. Subsequent to the Sefer Ha-Manhig, the next mention of the responsum is in Ramban's commentary to Avodah Zarah. He quotes approvingly this responsum from "the Geonim." There is a significant detail in his citation of this responsum that we will analyze shortly.

After the Ramban's citation of this responsum, we find it appearing in Sephardic texts, notably (and unsurprisingly) within Ramban's school. Thus, we find the Rashba and the Ritva discussing this prohibition. In the comments to Rashba's Toras Ha-Bayis (3:7, p. 184), we find the Rashba and the Re'ah having a heated discussion about the Aivu incident, one that the Re'ah continued in his commentary to Avodah Zarah. The debate is significant in that the parties discussed, among other things, whether or not Aivu violated a rabbinic prohibition. According to the Rashba, and the Ritva follows this view, Aivu violated a rabbinic prohibition and was, therefore, punished by not having his view quoted. This is referred to as a "midah ke-neged midah" - a punishment directly related to his transgression. He did not value the words (i.e. the prohibition) of the Sages so he is not considered a sage, whose words would be valued. According to the Re'ah, however, (and the Ramban seems to share this view) Aivu did not violate any prohibition but simply did not meet the high standards expected of a rabbinic scholar (note the implication that a scholar should be more stringent than the average Jew; b"n more on that in a future post). It is not a punishment meted out to sinners, but merely the natural consequences of someone who does not meet the standards of admission into rabbinic discourse.

The upshot of this disagreement is that according to the Rashba and Ritva, a scholar who is not fully observant should not be quoted "in the Beis Midrash." According to the Ramban and Re'ah, even a scholar who is fully observant but does not meet the extra standards expected of a scholar may not be quoted. Torah discourse is for scholars, and only those who act like one may take part.

Once the debate began, we can only expect that it was noted and continued by contemporary scholars. The Meiri briefly mentions the issue and the Ran, in his commentary to the Rif, raises it and quotes the responsum of R. Amram Gaon.

However, this lively debate seems to have been entirely lost on Ashkenazic scholars. There is no indication that this passage was taken as a directive not to quote non-observant scholars. In fact, even though the passage regarding Aivu is quoted in the midst of discussions of the laws of Gentile bread, there is no mention of the implication regarding whom one may quote and whom one may not. Indeed, this is despite the raising of this precise topic in Sefer Hasidim (more on that later) from a different angle. For some reason, this passage in Avodah Zarah was left unplumbed in this respect. I had originally thought that it might be due to the prominence of the textual variant that prohibits speaking with Aivu, but not necessarily quoting him. However, a search through early Ashkenazic rishonim found both variants in almost equal frequency.

Subsequent to the Ran, the connection between the Aivu passage and the citation of non-mainstream scholars seems to have been severed. I could not find any mention of the responsum of R. Amram Gaon or the implication of the Aivu passage until the 19th century battle against Reform. For some reason that I cannot explain, halakhists (e.g. Tur, Beis Yosef, Bah) failed entirely to quote the Ramban, Rashba, etc. on this issue.

(B"n, to be continued)

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