No Clever Titles Here

Mississippi Fred refers to a comment thread at Hirhurim, which raises an interesting problem for orthodox Jews with a critical bent. (The thread is long, the relevant part starts at timestamp The debate is over R. Akiva Eiger’s attitude towards Mendelsohn and his Biur, but the problem runs deeper than that.

There is an inherent tension between critical historical thinking and orthodox Jewish thought. There are all sorts of ways to negotiate that tension, those don’t interest me just now. I want to explore the tension a bit. The fundamental problem is epistemological. How do we know what we know? Based on our sense data mediated by reason? Or do we trust to revelation, mediated by tradition? Those of us who live within religious traditions take revelation seriously, but what part of that tradition is revealed? How do these questions relate back to R. Eiger’s relationship to Moses Mendelsohn?

For those who take a maximalist position vis-à-vis the question of tradition’s relationship to revelation, it becomes impossible that a pious historical personage could disagree with contemporary theological ideas, because all of theology was revealed. When I was in Yeshiva, at a nominally Religious Zionist institution, I would ask one of the rebbeim questions about questions about statements of Chazal that seemed heterodox by contemporary standards. He would always preface his answers (which were rarely satisfying) with, “Well, you have to understand, you can’t take these things at face value,” which drove me batty. The point of all of this is just to say that the tension is very real, and to argue about particular details, though important, ignores the larger issue. For example, this Shabbat I mentioned in passing to a young friend of mine who attends the local Charaidi yeshiva high school that the Septuagint was an early Translation of the Bible written for a Jewish audience. He took exception to this, as it contradicts Chazal’s claim that it was commissioned by Ptolemy. We couldn’t even argue about it, because we were coming from different epistemological positions. He was unwilling to entertain the possibility that Chazal might have been wrong in this case, that some aggadic material might be historically inaccurate. He was very concerned that I was claiming it might be.

At the end of the day we have to draw lines for ourselves. What part of tradition is revealed, and what isn’t? This is a longstanding debate in the Jewish tradition which maximalists want to ignore, or interpret out of existence. I don’t have any answers to these questions, but it is useful to at least articulate them.

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6 Responses to No Clever Titles Here

  1. S. says:

    יישר כחך for a great post.
    >For those who take a maximalist position vis-à-vis the question of tradition’s relationship to revelation, it becomes impossible that a pious historical personage could disagree with contemporary theological ideas, because all of theology was revealed.
    YH Yerushalmi wrote something in ‘<a href=”http://books.google.com/books?id=2odTN4FmglQC&pg=PR19&lpg=PR19&dq=yerushalmi+faith+fallen+zakhor&source=web&ots=d2f8bkRx1Y&sig=g3mbslxRMTWtcLGF8VsQHdJ4YVU#PPA86,M1″ rel=”nofollow”>Zakhor</a>’ that haunted me ever since I first read it: “…history becomes what it had never been before—the faith of fallen Jews.”
    What happens when one discovers history, when one learns that there is a historical R. Akiva Eger and he may–or may <i>not</i> be like a ‘Godol’ of today? How is one ever to relate to historical persons except on an individual, case-by-case basis (placed into the correct times and place, of course)? Yerushalmi was right…

  2. jessea says:

    I read something similar to Yerushalmi’s statement recently, though it was stated in a derogatory tone. I’ll try to track it down again. I think you’re dead on, in the sense that the discovery of history does make us question the concept of eternal values. Prof. Soloveitchik may have been responding to this charge in some sense when he wrote of the loss of mimetic culture in “Rupture and Reconstruction.” “Yes,” he was saying, “we’ve fallen, with our historical critical outlook, but they’ve fallen too. They have also abandoned their pristine, traditional past.” I’m not sure that this is the proper way to answer the charge, for a whole host of reasons, but I like that he tries.

  3. jessea says:

    I edited the timestamp on your post, as it was five hours ahead.

  4. S. says:

    >Prof. Soloveitchik may have been responding to this charge in some sense when he wrote of the loss of mimetic culture in “Rupture and Reconstruction.”

    Interesting point.

    I always understood the attempts to characterize Orthodoxy as a stream that could only exist as a choice between ways of Jewish living, and hence, a modern movement in the same sense as the other modern Jewish movements (although I think there is much to commend this definition of Jewish Orthodoxy).

    (Incidentally, Yerushalmi was accused of attacking history itself, and its study, with Zakhor, something he denied.)

  5. jessea says:

    >I always understood the attempts to characterize Orthodoxy as a stream that could only exist as a choice between ways of Jewish living, and hence, a modern movement in the same sense as the other modern Jewish movements (although I think there is much to commend this definition of Jewish Orthodoxy).

    That’s interesting, and probably true, but in a much more limited sense,. The first undergraduate history paper I ever wrote was actually on this topic. The difference between that material, (i.e. Jacob Katz’s work, Michael Silber’s work, etc…) and Soloveitchik’s essay is the context and intended audience. Solovietchik was writing in Tradition for an Orthodox audience, lamenting something that was lost. It is a much more polemical work. He was trying I think, though I can’t prove it, to stem this “turn to the right,” which so many people in left wing Orthododxy find so troubling, by answering the rights most appealing claim, that it is a more authentic Judaism. The other stuff was mostly written earlier than that. I’m not sure it really serves the same purpose.

    >(Incidentally, Yerushalmi was accused of attacking history itself, and its study, with Zakhor, something he denied.)

    I didn’t know that, its very interesting. Do you know who accused him? I’d like to read that.

  6. S. says:

    I see I need to correct myself. I meant to say “I always say…in a similar way,” that is, a response to the charge that “You [not very or non-Orthodox] have also changed!” but I left out “in a similar way.” But I see you got that anyway. 🙂

    You are right that H. Soloveitchik’s article in Tradition was of a different sort. I understand that the article differs from the original version, “Migration, Acculturation, and the New Role of Texts in the Haredi World ” in Accounting for Fundamentalisms: The Dynamic Character of Movements. I did in fact read this version once, but I didn’t pay close attention to note the differences, although I do recall that it omitted the bit about Yom Kippur at the end. So you’re right that the original was certainly more ‘scientific’ and the Tradition version was not an attempt of the same sort.

    However, although Katz et al were writing earlier, they were not writing before the emergence of self-conscious Orthodoxy that asserted that it alone was authentic, traditional Judaism!

    As for the criticism, in the Preface to the 1989 edition Yerushalmi responds to “the grave[r]charge, that Zakhor represents an indictment and repudiation of modern historical scholarship per se,” which he denies and he says he is baffled by. Although he is responding to unnamed reviews, if I am not mistaken he faced some of this criticism too when he originally delivered the Stroum Lectures in 1980 at the University of Washington.

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