Monday, February 14, 2005

Hazal, Mistakes and Frumteens

A commenter directed me to the brief critique of Mysterious Creatures by the anonymous author of Frumteens (here, at the bottom of the page). Ke-darko ba-kodesh, he is intelligent and insightful while still being entirely wrong.

The root of the moderator's problem is on pages 54-55 of Mysterious Creatures. R. Slifkin raises a question that readers might ask and, as he does throughout the book (particularly in the long introduction), he answers from different possible viewpoints within the Orthodox world. Presumably, given his audience, he wishes to offer as many valid viewpoints as possible so as to keep the questioning reader within the world of Orthodoxy. A reader who rejects one explanation should not think that he has written himself out of the Orthodox world and, therefore, withdraw from it. Rather, there are other options within Orthodoxy and someone who rejects one answer can still be comfortable with the frum community.

The question R. Slifkin asks is if, given that the Sages could make errors in scientific matters (something he discusses at length and addressed in this post), should we be concerned that they could make mistakes in matters of halakhic principles as well?

R. Slifkin writes:

There are several responses to this. The first is that the Torah itself acknowledges that Torah scholars are not perfect and may indeed makes mistakes in their Torah rulings. Indeed, there is an entire section of the Torah, Vayikra 4:13-21, which deals with the laws of sin-offerings that are brought by the Elders upon making a mistaken ruling...

Alternatively, one can simply respond that the Sages' knowledge of science was clearly not on the same level as their knowledge of Torah... The Sages' lack of expertise in matters relating to the natural world has no implications whatsoever for their expertise in Torah...
The Frumteens moderator objects to the first answer. In his view, it should have been omitted and only the second answer should have been provided. He writes:
The problem is, the issue is not whether humans are fallible. Of course they are. The issue, rather, is whether Torah shebal peh c”v contains any of those human errors. And neither Mesechta Horios nor the Korbon Chatas have anything to do with that.

The Torah shebal peh of Chazal does not contain any errors. Just as we are obligated to believe that Torah shebiksav is correct, we are obligated to believe that Torah shebal peh is correct. Both are Mipi Hagevurah, and that includes not only the Halachos but also the drashos and peirushei hepesukim of chazal.
Perhaps the problem is that he follows an expansive definition of Torah She-Be-Al Peh, one that includes everything stated by Hazal. This is not the view of the Rambam or the Geonim, as I have discussed in the past (here and here). Regardless, he has totally missed the point and his subsequent quote proves it. He proceeds to quote the Derashos Ha-Ran as saying that we must follow the conclusions of Hazal. He then interrets this passage as meaning:
This means even if your actions follow according to their instructions, if you do not believe in the theology or the Deos or the interpretations of the pesukim that Chazal derived, you are an apikores, because you deny Torah she bal peh.
He entirely misunderstands the Derashos Ha-Ran, which actually proves the exact opposite of what he intended. A careful reading of that passage in the Derashos Ha-Ran (Feldman edition, pp. 89-90, paticularly p. 89 lines 16-17) reveals that he is of the view that one must believe Hazal's statements that are claimed to be from Sinai. He only speaks of those statements and not others. Earlier, the Ran (p. 86) writes that one must follow Hazal even when they are wrong (cf. n. 98 in the name of R. Hisdai Crescas that we must follow Hazal's ruling even though it is not the Torah's intent - Im she-lo hayah ken kavanas ha-Torah). He actually writes in derush 7 (p. 112) that in the dispute between R. Eliezer and the Sages, the Sages reached a conclusion that is "the opposite of the truth" (hefekh ha-emes) but we must still follow the view of the Sages. (See here for more on this). The Sefer Ha-Hinukh (no. 496) writes similarly:
The views of people are different and it is impossible to get many opinions to agree on matters. The Master Of All, blessed be He, knows that if the intent of the written Torah was given to each person to determine according to his judgement, everyone would explain the words of the Torah as they see fit and the disagreements in Israel about the commandments would be numerous. The Torah would be made into many different Torahs... Therefore, G-d, who is the Master of all wisdoms, completed our Torah - the true Torah - with this commandment: that we are obligated to follow the true explanation that was transmitted to our early Sages, of blessed memory... Even if they say that the right is left and the left is right, we cannot depart from their rulings. Meaning, even if they err in an issue we should not dispute them but follow their error. It is better to withstand one mistake with everyone relying on one authority than to have each person follow his own halachic opinion because this would disrupt the religion, cause disunity of the people, and destroy the nation entirely.
As R. Slifkin points out, this is not the only possible view. That is why he offers another, one that the Frumteens moderator espouses. But R. Slifkin was trying to maximize inclusion within the Orthodox community by offering multiple valid viewpoints, and I think he should be commended for doing so.

The Frumteens moderator (here) objects to R. Slifkin's referring to a non-literal understanding of the six days of Creation as "more sophisticated" than a literal understanding. He builds a mountain of intended insults out of this minor choice of words. In my opinion, he is creating insults when none were intended.

UPDATE: This morning, the Frumteens moderator added a new comment on the books (here) in which he treats us to his critique of contemporary science. I do not know the level of his scientific competence but if it is anything like mine, at most a college introductory level, then his critique is meaningless (see here). Let's leave the critiquing to those who know that of which they speak.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More