Thursday, February 22, 2007

Useless Theorizing

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 17a) lists as one of the qualifications for being appointed to the Sanhedrin the ability to declare pure an (impure) insect. Rabbenu Tam asks what need there is for this useless sharpness (charifus shel hevel). Why should we require a scholar to be able to theorize in an incorrect way? R. Reuven Margoliyos, in an article recently reprinted in Peninim U-Margoliyos (pp. 115-116), quotes a number of views on this subject.

The Meiri (Commentary ad loc.) says that the reason is that if a generation has various spiritual troubles a Sanhedrin member will know how to create new rules -- to add or to subtract as a temporary measure -- and to connect them to the text of the Torah.

The Rema (Responsa, no. 107) writes that the point is to minimize the impurity that the Torah legislated, not to abrogate it entirely. Therefore, it is a practical exercise and not merely theoretical.

The Maharal (Derush La-Torah, p. 24) writes that the goal is to better understand the essence of the insect. The insect has both aspects of purity and impurity within it, and the exercise is to find the aspects of purity so as to comprehend the creature from all of its aspects.

The Kovetz Al Ha-Rambam (Avodah Zarah 6:4) writes that this is an exercise in humility. Someone who knows that he can justify through logic even purifying an insect will know to be careful with his logic and not convict someone based solely on theory and logic.

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