Sunday, July 16, 2006

Aggada and Midrashim

The requirement to believe Torah MiSinai includes of course, not only Torah shebiksav, but Torah shebaal peh. That includes Midrashim.

However, Agados can be interpreted non-literally. Rav Saadia Gaon writes that an Agada can be interpreted as Mesholim in 4 instances: If it contradicts reality, reason, Gemara, or Rabbinic tradition. The Ramchal, in Maamar HaAgadta also writes that some Agados are mesholim. (See also Radak Shmuel I end of ch. 28)

Not accepting a Mamar Chazal is not acceptable - but to reinterpret it in a way that makes it more palatable is OK.

Theoretically, that is. In order to interpret any Chazal - Halachah or Agada - you need to benefit of Rabbinic tradition throughout the ages. If the Rishonim considered an Agada literal, you would be fooling yourself by saying that it is not. They surely had the same measure of common sense as we do, and so if they were not bothered by the credulity of a specific statement of Chazal, we should not be, either.

Another thing: There are people who refuse to accept what seems to them incredulity even in Pesukim of the Torah and they therefore interpret them allegorically. That is Apikorsus for sure. And to say that well, I will trust the Torah and the Prophets but not Chazal makes no sense. Chazal didn't make up stories. But rather the Agada was said, sometimes, as a Moshol. But to know when it is a Moshol and when it is literal is as difficult as properly interpreting any Torah passage. And here, too, the same logic that tells you the literal meaning of the Chazal is hard to accept also tells you in even stronger tones, that we are nothing but foolish to reject the opinions of our Rishonim, who understood both reality and Chazal much better than we do.

I have a better idea, then, for such cases, when you come across such a Chazal. Invoke Rav Chaim Brisker's dictums: 1 "Fun a kasha shtarbt mir nisht". You won't die from a [an unanswered] question. 2 "S'iz besser to beiben by a kasha vi tzu zogen a krumer teretz" - "It's better to remain with a question than to have the wrong answer."

So say simply, "I don't understand this Chazal." You don't have to interpret it any way at all. Maybe one day you'll see something in a sefer or someone will explain it. In the meantime, there is no need to jump to conclusions that our predecessors did not reach.

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Scientific facts in Chazal and rabbinic tradition can be divided into two categories:
(a) Scientific facts that are taken from the Torah itself, and
(b) Scientific facts that were known by Chazal based on their knowledge of science.

That scientific knowledge can be derived the Torah, there is no doubt. The Gemora in Bechoros 8a derives from a posuk in Bereishis the fact that a snake stays with its children longer than the rest of the animal kingdom. This is cited by the Ramban (Toras Hashem Temima p.159 in Chavel edition) as but one example of how Chazal knew facts of science from the pesukim in the Torah that describe Brias HaOlam. He cites more. Rabbeinu Bachya writes in the Introduction to Chumash that all wisdom and science in existence is contained in Torah. Some scientific facts were known through rabbinic tradition. The Rashba cites a rabbinic tradition from Sinai that a treifah cannot live more than 12 months. (Rav Yonason Eyebushitz (Kreisi Upleisi 40) writes that such traditions are not to be disregarded even if found to be against “all the laws of heaven and earth”, since they are part of Torah shebal peh.)

To question a scientific fact that is derived from the Torah is to question the author’s understanding of the Torah, which, in the case of Chazal, cannot be done. The only question is, did Chazal derive all of the scientific facts they used from the Torah, and what do we do when we see a scientific fact in Chazal that contradicts current scientific knowledge?

The Rama in Toras HaOlah quotes the Rambam who says that in the days of Neviim and Chazal, the science of astronomy was “incomplete”. The Rama strongly argues, stating clearly that we assume rabbinic science to be infallible, and ancient rabbinic knowledge of astronomy complete.

The Maharal (B’er Hagola 6) writes that when the sages mentioned a scientific fact, they derived it from their knowledge of the Torah and Hashem, Who is the Cause of all science. He says that science is inferior to Torah even where it comes to scientific knowledge, because scientists base their opinions on what they see, which is a finite and imperfect method of investigation, as opposed to knowledge of science through Torah, which is the root and cause for all facts in the world.

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Rabbeinu Avrohom says that Medrashim are not "essential" beliefs - not in the 13 ikarim, but he does not say that they are not as authoritative as the non-ikarim beliefs of the Torah. The ikarim means that if you don’t believe them you are not part of klall yisroel. According to the Rambam, even if you accidentally don’t believe them, or are mistaken about them.

There are numerous explanations of the difference between the Ikarim and the rest of the Torah - even though everything in Torah can be considered in Torah shebal peh - but even the non-ikarim of the Torah are binding belief, such that you cannot say about then what the Ramban said about the Medrashim: "If you believe them, good; if not, it doesn't hurt."

The fact that Medrashim, according to Rabeinu Avrohom, are svara not kabalah doesnt negate their authority. Other parts of Torah are svara too - one of the 13 Midos of the Torah, Kal Vachomer, is a svara, not traditional, and that is once of the reasons given for ain onshin min hadin - that we do not punish people based on kal vachomer, because since it is not tradition but mere svara, we cannot be sure it is true.

But nobody ever said that someone has the right to disagree with any halachah based on kal vachomer. The svara of chazal are authoritative even without tradition.

I would imagine that the pshat is, that the Agados, as opposed to Halachos, are often not meant k'pshutam, and therefore, when the Rishonim "disagree" with them, they mean merely to disagree with the simple meaning, implying that the Medrash must mean something that we do not understand, as oppsoed to saying that the Medrash is simply wrong. As the Menoras Hameor said, if they look strange, it's because we don’t understand what they really mean. So when dealing with the simple pshat in Tanach, it may be OK, if you are a rishon, to learn the pshat differently than the Medrash, if you have proof that the Medrash cannot mean what it seems to say - not that the author of the Medrash is mistaken.

Especially since the Abarbanel does sometimes learn pshat differently than the Medrashim, and the Abarbanel happen to hold, in his sefer Rosh Amanah, that every fact of Torah are "essential" beliefs, not only the 13 dictums of the Rambam. So if license to disagree with the Agad is based on the fact that they are not among the 13 Ikarim, the Abarbanel would not agree with that license, since to him, everything is included in the Ikarim.

Rather, disbelieving a Medrash is not allowed; saying "it does not mean what it seems to say" is acceptable. This would not even be considered "distrusting the sages" since you are not distrusting anyone except your own understanding of what the sages said.

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In the Ramban's transcript of his disputes with Christian priests, the Ramban seemed to say we don't take Midrashim literally. We know this isn't true, so how could he say that?
The Yam Shel Shlomo in Bava Kama does say that it is a capital crime to falsify a Halachah, but not everyone agrees with that. I heard Rabbi Dovid Cohen say at an AJOP convention that he once asked Rav Moshe Feinstein ZTL about his (Rav Moshe's) Teshuva on capital punishment, written to the president of the USA, which does not seem to square with the Torah's view. Rav Moshe replied that even though what he wrote wasn't 100% true, he needed to tell that to the President for whatever reason. Rabbi Cohen then mentioned the Yam Shel Shlomo, and Rav Moshe said he disagreed with the Yam Shel Shlomo.

But I don't see that the Yam Shel Shlomo would necessarily have a problem with what the Ramban said. The YSS is talking about stating a false Halachah, saying what is chayav is potur or vice versa. The Rambam did not change a single halachah or Torah idea. All he did was make a misleading statement about Torah methodology - about the authority of Medrashim, but there was not a single practical difference in the world. One the contrary, by the Ramban saying that he was able to convey the authentic Torah stance on the matter; had he conceded as to the authority of Medrashim, the Goyim would have believed a false concept, since the Rambam could not have explained to them that the Medrash is talking al pi kabalah. The Rambam said a lie in order to bring out the true Torah position, as opposed to the Maharshal who is talking about falsifying the Torah position.

Furthermore, the Ramban's words could be interpreted many ways - as a milsa d'misparshei b'trie anpei - we have examples of Chazal, and even Yaakov Avinu, using verbal trickery to give a wrong impression without uttering a lie ("ani esav bechorchah"). The Ramban said that: We have a book called medrash, which are sermons etc." The Ramban did NOT say what he has in mind when he refers to this "book." He did not say that he is referring to the Medrash Rabbah or Tanchumah etc. Perhaps he had some other "book" in mind when he said that, which states the birthday of Moshiach. It is true that in context of the question posed, he did give that impression, but if the Ramban wanted to, he could say that he did not lie. And/or, the Ramban could mean that the literal meaning of the Medrash is negligible, meaning, that the Medrashim surely are authoritative, but their literal words are not always their real intent. In other words, the "sermons" of Chazal are not the same as "sermons" of humans - even when Chazal gave a "personal opinion" sermon, the personal opinion only refers to the literal text, but there is certainly a Torah she bal peh, authoritative meaning in the Medrash, even if the Medrash is only a moshol.

The reason I say that it is untenable that the Ramban just did not believe in the authority of Medrashim is because we have an entire body of Torah literature - Halachic and Agadic - based on Medrashim, as well as Halachic proofs being brought from Medrashim, and we do not find in this entire body of literature, anybody defending himself against a Medrash by saying it is merely a sermon. And don't forget - this would include the Mechilta, Sifra, and Sifri as well. They, too, are not part of "Talmud." The first Ramban on the Taryag Mitzvos (of the Rambam) wants to disprove the Rambam's position that Anochi Hashem is a mitzvah based on an Agadita in the Mechilta. This is just one of countless mesholim.

Because of that, and because such a sentiment from the Ramban happens to only appear when he is put on the spot by the Christians in a public forum, in which he had no other choice (what should he have done - explained to them the Kabbalistic, "true" meaning of the medrash??), and the other sources (such as the Abarbanel) do indeed explain that Medrash to have meaning only al pi kabbalah, plus the fact that to interpret the Ramban differently would put the Ramban at odds with Torah authorities who clearly state otherwise (see below), and it is a rule (stated explicitly in the responsa Chacham Tzvi) that whenever we have a choice, we go out of our way to interpret Torah positions so as NOT to argue with each other, I do not believe that the Ramban meant simply to say that the Medrashim (i.e. anything outside of "Talmud") are just discardable.

The Radvaz (4:232) writes that "Aggadah is part of the Torah shebal peh and is rooted in what Moshe received on Har Sinai directly from Hashem, just like the rest of Torah shebal peh".

The Sifri (48) explains the posuk in Devarim 11:22, "And you really follow all this Mitzvah", that "this means to learn Midrash, Halachah, and Agada."

The Sdei Chemed (vol. IX p.130) brings opinions that we rule halachicly like the Medrash Rabbah even against the Tosefta (others disagree).

Rabbeinu Tam (Sefer Hayashar) says that we do rule Halachicly from Agadita, and what Chazal mean when they say we do not, is merely that when Agada argues with argues with a Halachic source we rule like the Halachic source.

But nobody says that Agadita is just to be disregarded if one doesn't believe what it says.

As far as Rabeinu Avrohom ben Harambam, all he says is that some peirushim on Pesukim are not Kabalah l'moshe misinai, but rather the personal interpretations of the sages.

But Rabeinu Avrohom does not inform us as to what authority the "personal interpretations" of the sages have. He does not say that they are not binding.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos reads, "Shimon his son says, 'All my life I grew up among the sages and I have not found anything better for the body than silence'."

The Tana of this Mishna says explicitly that his statement is NOT a tradition from previous generations, but rather his personal observation. But does that make this Mishna any less holy, or authoritative, than any other?

The underlying concept behind the authority of the sages is not merely in what the received by tradition but what they discerned on their own. Their understanding reaches deep into the "infinite wells of wisdom" that G-d has planted inside a human being (see Ramban v'yipach b'apav nishmas chaim).

The Gemora constantly asks "lomoh li kra, svara hu." That means that the "personal understanding" of the sages has authority and a posuk does not add anything to the "personal logic."

Of course, it is very possible - and this seems to be what Rabeinu Avrohom is saying - that there are levels of authority in the Torah. There are the 13 "fundamentals of the religion", as opposed to other beliefs, which are binding, but denial of them is not the same as denying the fundamentals. So, too, Rabbeinu Avrohom is saying that denial of an interpretation of a Medrash is not on the same level as denying a tradition from Sinai (in fact he makes it a point to say that denying the interpretation of a Medrash is not like denying one of the fundamentals of the religion). But just as saying that creation ex nihilo for instance is not one of the 13 Ikarim (the Rambam actually omits it), does not mean that it is not a binding Torah belief, so too when we say that the Medrashim are not Siniatic traditions - which is all Rabeinu Avrohom said - it does not mean that you are not bound to believe them. Rabeinu Avrohom's statement and the Ramban's are not the same.

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As far as whether scientific data culled from the Torah is considered Halachah or Agada, and if they can be explained allegorically, there is Chacham Tzvi (77) about this. He used a Zohar to rule Halachicly that a chicken cannot live without a heart. There was a Rabbi then who suggested that the Zohar cannot be used to prove such a thing l'halachah because the Zohar is perhaps meant only as a moshol, but not literally.

The Chacham Zvi responds that unless we have no choice, we are obligated to interpret the words of the Torah and its sages - including the Zohar - literally, and so scientific facts can indeed be derived therefrom, and relied upon l'halacha

The Ran (Drashos, 5): "Just as we are commanded to follow their decisions (chazal) regarding the laws of the torah so to we are commanded to follow them regarding traditions and theology (deos) and the way to darshon the pesukim, whether it is regarding a mitzvah or not, and a jew who deviates from their words, even regarding what is not relevant to a mitzvah, is an apikores and has no share in the world to come."

And the Alshich: "Nobody has a right in our generation to disagree based on his own opinion, if he did not find such an opinion from his predecessors (Rebbeim). We are commanded "lo sosur", which includes also Agadita." (Shmuel II 21:1)

And the Menoras Hameor: "We are obligated to believe the Medrahos and the Agados as much as the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu a"h. And if there seems to be something that looks like an exaggeration or unnatural, the problem is in our understanding, not in their statement." (1:2:1).

The Maharashdam (EH 127) quotes the Rashbatz saying that "our generations compare to the earlier generations like a monkey to a human."

There are literally countless such examples of statements in the poskim regarding how we must accept the authority of those superior to us.

In the Responsa Chut Sheni (#18): "Even though this Mitzvah is not listed in the Gemora, still, since our Rabbis in France all wrote it, that is, the Baalei Tosfos, the Smag, Smak, Rosh, etc., we are obligated to fulfill it as if it was stated in the Gemora . . . for the Rosh writes regarding the post-Talmudic Geonim, and even regarding the sages of each generation, that whoever makes a mistake by not knowing their words, it is as if they made a mistake in not knowing a Mishna, so too here, someone who violates their words is as if he violated the Gemora, and is called a sinner."

(Interesting to see Rav Yaakov Emden's comments on the Chasam Sofer's disagreeing with his predecessors, in Yaavetz YD 264).

A monkey may not be obligated by law to believe what his human superiors tell him, but if he's a smart monkey, he will trust their intellectual superiority.

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