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.