Friday, June 27, 2008

Reading like the Netziv

A fascinating video of a lecture by R' Dr. Gil Perl. Best viewed as streaming video, the download is 339 MB. Hat tip: Areivim List.

Summary and one critique below:

R’ Dr. Gil Perl:

What was the Rosh Yeshiva Reading?

Netziv R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the last Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin – went as a child to Volozhin, spent entire life (1830-1892) there as student and RY. His commentaries exhibit broad knowledge. How was it gained?

A story in Mekor Boruch (by the Torah Temimah, parts of which eventually became “My Uncle the Netziv”). Joseph Steinberg, maskil, grammarian, asks how did the Netziv learn grammar? He responds with a parable about merchants – one gets belts for free with expensive fabric, one has to pay for belts alone – grammar comes with Torah learning, vs grammar being learned with difficulty on its own.

Is the story true? Probably not, not as written.

There is an early commentary on Sifri by the Netziv, never completed, published only 50 years after his death, where he cites sources for things. Now we can know what he read.

  1. Kuzari and Otzar Nechmad – O”N was by R’ Israel Zamosc, an early Maskil.
  2. Grammar of Eshkol haKofer – a 12th-century Karaite. Now we know how the Netziv learned grammar, the same as the Maskil – by learning grammatical works.
  3. Intro to Chumash BES”V and T”A – T”A is Targum Onkelos usually, but BESV if you slightly redraw the Beit as a Dalet, becomes Dessau, and Targum Ashkenaz – the Mendelssohn Chumash. And the issue being talked about here is in fact what Mendelssohn talks about in the intro. The descendents probably euphemized it to BESV; Perl found ms. in possession of family, but family only allowed him to read page by page, because they didn’t want him to see questionable stuff. He had to ask for something a bit earlier, so as to hit the right page without tipping them off, and in fact it was DESV, underlined in pink (probably indicating a change to be made in printing).
  4. Elijah Levita (Bachur) Mesoret haMesoret – suggests that vowels and trup were in fact a later addition.
  5. Azariah de Rosse, Me’or Einayim. Mishmosh. Jewish history non-traditional. Refers to aggadic literature, narratives, as not necessarily intended to be taken literally, but as teaching of Truths based on their then understanding of the world. This got him into cherem, works banned by the Mechaber. Maharal spends pages denouncing de Rossi. Netziv tells us to read the absolute worst areas in the book (by that standard). E.g.,
    1. Netziv talks about different types of exegesis, midrash. He cites parenthetically, (See M”E IV[II]:9) à where de Rossi suggests that the midrash uses verses as a support or mnemonic for story, not story as interpretation of verse. We don’t have to take everything literally.
    2. same section in De Rossi – aggadot mere conjecture on the part of their inventor – this idea was regarded as heretical, if the stories are not based in Mesorah. This is what Netziv wanted us to see.
    3. another midrash: “let us go up to conquer Israel” means that Israel must be higher than all other lands. Netziv comments – this seems to be against geography, so see de Rossi. De Rossi says don’t take it literally.
    4. another midrash: “Kartignin place”. Netziv: Carthage, that Josephus has made famous, also see de Rossi, who says it’s in Africa. How did de Rossi know? Because “Jerome, who was also wise, translates this ref in Ezekiel as Carthage”.
    5. Text of cherem against Slifkin compares Slifkin’s writings to Me’or Einayim, which was banished by Maharal: “Cursed be the day that such things were brought to our vision; How could one who can’t understand the words of our sages at all, talk about the sages as if they were his own friends, criticizing them like his own colleagues?” – still controversial today.

Next question – what brought him to read such heretical things? Turns out he wasn’t alone.

  1. The Maggid of Slonim, RYL Edel, “Afikei Yehuda”, cites Meor Einayim.
  2. R’ Avraham ben haGra cites Meor Einayim, as a great collection of Jewish and non-Jewish sources.
  3. RaDa”L – David Luria, of Obichov, Lita. Comments on Midrash Rabbah, referring to scientific literature, describing change in salinity of ocean at the Pillars of Hercules between Atlantic and Mediterranean.
  4. Kenaf Renanim, by Hanoch Zundel Luria, Maggid of Novardok: cites [German] Letters of Mendelssohn [reads out Moshe ben Maimon – maybe he really meant Rambam?] – read his German works on philosophy.
  5. Yoel Dovber haKohen in Volozhin: Commentary on Yalkut Shimoni. Less-known, that he translated the French political work “Adventures of Telemachus” and the “Fables of Aesop.”
  6. Yitzchak Eliyahu Landau, Maggid of Vilna: “Even if we were all wise and learned in the law” – understood as “Even if we were all scientists, masters of biology and astronomy”

So what happened? Why did the Netziv not cite them in his later Torah commentary? Times change. Reform reached Eastern Europe by the middle of the 19th century. Haskalah and Reform and Mendelssohn become equated, so the RY of Volozhin is not going to tell a student to read De Rossi.

Kenaf Renanim: Later printings remove references to [Moshe ben Maimon].

What does this mean for today? I’ll leave that to you.


  • Q. Where did they have access to this literature? A. Coincides with boom in E. European boom in Hebrew printing. Lots of stuff available. Glut in traditional texts, so new printers want to go find other texts that hadn’t been printed in centuries. Get copies right off the press.
  • Q Did the Netziv know that these texts were put into cherem? A. Can’t say for sure, but cites Maharal elsewhere, albeit not a big Maharal fan, so probably knew. Certainly he would have known how people reacted to Mendelssohn.
  • Q. Maharal and others also talk about exaggerations in midrashim? A. How dare you go beyond what was already identified as non-literal?
  • Q. Self-censorship? A. ha-Amek Davar has a bit of it, also the fact that he never published the commentary on Sifri. Different to self-censor than for others to censor.
  • Q. Hatam Sofer denounced Mendelssohn, A. Pressburg and Lita were very different. Pressburg had no reform movement, but Hatam Sofer comes from Germany so he feels he must oppose Reform.
  • Q. Lita was more liberal towards Haskalah? A. Developed differently in E. Europe, because no Reform movement ever developed out of it.
  • Q. Did it flourish in Volozhin? A. No, just some were reading it. Maybe it was flourishing more in Vilna.
  • Q. Dating of these things? A. He started reading them in his late twenties. The commentary was repeatedly edited and changed throughout his life, but these marginalia were only in the earliest stratum, age 25-30.
  • Q. What do I think of the situation today with all the current controversies? A. As my advisor said, it’s great to be a historian because people are dead and can’t talk back, so I will not speculate.
  • Q. Have the relatives of the Netziv ever read my thesis? A. No, but my relations with them soured, and I can’t go back to look at the mss.
  • Q. Wasn’t the Torah Temimah his brother-in-law? A. Some of the family connections: Netziv’s first wife was the daughter of R’ Itzele of Volozhin, he was 14, she 12. Born 1816, became RY in 1853. Torah Temimah’s mother was Netziv’s sister. Netziv remarries a sister of the Torah Temimah, his own niece, so Netziv was TT’s uncle and brother-in-law. From first marriage came R’ Chaim Berlin, and from 2nd marriage comes R’ Meir Bar-Ilan. Two different people going in two very different directions.


My one issue with this is his citation of Kenaf Renanim, as noted above. He read out in Hebrew, “Moshe ben Maimon”. But Mendelssohn was “Moshe ben Menachem Mendel”, sometimes abbreviated as “Rambeman” to distinguish him from Rambam. What did Kenaf Renanim say? Rambam? “Moshe ben Maimon”? Rambeman? If the issue were Rambam, that puts an entirely different spin on the relationship to philosophy. It wouldn’t be the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but the metaphysical system based in Aristotle which had also lost favor, more significantly foreshadowing today’s Slifkin debate – were these ideas OK for the medievals but not for us?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Thinking Like the Rambam

Dixie Yid recently posted an article purporting to demonstrate that the Rambam agrees with the Baal Shem Tov on the nature of Hashgacha Pratit (individual providence). I’ve looked over his sources, and it seems to me impossible to read the Rambam to say what he wants.

Rambam is not like other Jewish thinkers. His ideas are not the standard Kabbalah-based ones that have dominated Jewish theology since. Moshe Idel and Menachem Kellner would argue that, in fact, Zoharic Kabbalah developed as a response to Rambam’s philosophic theology, but that’s another post (or three). Be that as it may, to read Rambam accurately, you have to read him on his own terms, not as a source of quotes to prove someone else’s point.

If “academics” are the only ones to read Rambam on his own terms, rather than through the filter of Kabbalistic Judaism, then so be it. Our LOR, who is also an academic philosopher, has been teaching Hilchot Teshuvah and Hilchot Melachim in his weekly shiur for the past couple of years, and it is almost like pulling teeth to get most of us to take off our Kabbalah/East-European folk religion glasses, and read the Rambam on his own terms. I won’t say that my understanding is based on his, since we didn’t cover these chapters, but I do try to separate the Rambam from our cultural filters.

To the substance of my critique:

I submit that Reb Yid has taken the Rambam out of context, repeatedly, selectively quoting opinions that the Rambam himself rejects, if read in context.

From Hilchot Teshuvah 6:2 (Yemenite paragraph numbering): "When one person or the people of a nation sin, the sinner sins of his own will, and as I have said, it is appropriate for him to be punished. And Hashem knows how to punish [him]."

Reb Yid takes this to mean that God’s Providence lies upon that individual or that nation directly. What the passage says, however, is that while individuals or nations can sin, God knows how they will be punished. This is talking about reward and punishment, not about Providence. We must distinguish between three things: Providence, Knowledge, and Consequences.

· Providence is necessarily first – it is God’s will that something should happen, and the application of His Will to make it happen.

· Knowledge is, or is about, the happening itself. As Rambam says, God is the Knower, the Knowledge and the Known – the purest infinite Intellect. He knows that something will happen, He knows that it is happening, He is the Happening itself. But Knowledge is not Direction. For instance, my parents know, that absent changes in circumstances beyond our control, that we will be in Parsippany this weekend. (changes could include illness, God forbid, or my sister-in-law giving birth, IY”H, etc. – God is not limited by these circumstances, He Knows what will happen). But that doesn’t mean that my parents are exerting their Will to ensure that I will be in Parsippany. Knowledge, even foreknowledge, is not Direction, is not Causation.

· Consequences are what happens as a result of one’s actions. For our purposes, Reward and Punishment.

We should note that in his 13 Foundational Principles, the Rambam states as axioms of the Torah system, that God Knows all (10th Principle) and that God dispenses reward and punishment as appropriate (11th Principle). The Rambam does not regard it as a necessary belief that God directs every action in the world.

So all this statement says is an affirmation of the 10th and 11th Principles – that God knows what individuals or nations do in this world, and punishes or rewards them appropriately. It says nothing about God’s direction of action in this world.

This would clearly fall outside the scope of the superficial meaning of what he said in Moreh Nevuchim.

As shown above, not at all. It says nothing to contradict what the Rambam said in the Guide. Knowledge of sin, and Consequences of sin, are not Divine Direction to sin.

Reb Yid then gives the example of God imposing His Will upon Paroh, in impeding Paroh’s ability to do teshuvah, as an example of Rambam admitting to individual Divine Providence upon a non-Jew. This is in fact exactly the opposite of what the Rambam is demonstrating. Rambam says: "Since [Par'oh] sinned on his own first and harmed the Jewish people... Hashem judged him by withholding Teshuva from him." It was solely as a Consequence of Paroh’s individual Action that Hashem imposed a punishment on him, to prevent him from repenting. It was solely because Paroh willed to sin, that Hashem then imposed a greater punishment on him. But make no mistake – for Rambam, Paroh, not God, initiated the sequence of events.

Actually, Rambam himself openly states that Hashgacha Pratis (Divine Providence) applies to every detail of creation! In laying out the contradiction between Divine knowledge and the existance of free will, the Rambam says "You should know that everything is done according to [Hashem's] will, and nevertheless our actions are in our hands." (Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 5:7) The Rambam identifies the source of the apparant Knowledge/Choice contradiction in terms of nothing happening except through His will one one hand, and our free choice on the other hand.

No, that’s only one side of the paradox, that’s not his final word on how things are. One way to resolve it is to say that it is His Will that we have free will. He created us with free will, and thus anything we do is by His Will, but not directly. It’s like a teacher, who says “you can write your term paper on any subject you choose within the subject matter of the class.” The teacher didn’t will that Zev should write about the origins of the steam engine, but Zev’s choice to write about the origins of the steam engine is a consequence of, and consonant with, the teacher’s will.

Further, Reb Yid says, the doctrine of individual guidance of every blade of grass follows from the Rambam’s continuation of that paragraph. In fact, that’s not the case. He states the paradox, but does not solve it.

Reb Yid notes that there are several solutions to the apparent stira between the Rambam and himself, or between the Rambam and the Baal Shem Tov. One such solution, that he does not note, is to read the Rambam on his own terms, rather than as a source of quotes to support your predetermined conclusion.

For the proposed solutions:

1) I don’t have a Mei haShiloach to see what the Izbitzer says in context, so I can’t speak to it.

2) The late Lubavitcher Rebbe leaves it a paradox – of course the Besht is true, but we can’t dismiss the Rambam, so we live with the paradox. Paradox is central to Chabad theology (see Rachel Elior’s The Paradoxical Ascent to the Divine), so this works for him.

3) Reb Yid’s rebbe simply denies the Rambam’s own position, and replaces it with the Besht’s, then adding a third type of Providence to the equation.

The Rambam, in the Guide III:17-18, talks about Divine Providence. He explicitly rejects the “every blade of grass has its angel” theory in III:17. Now, there is a whole academic literature on “secrets of the Guide”, where the Rambam says one thing but secretly means another, in accord with his introduction that states that there are hidden things in the Guide. But where the same idea is backed up by the Mishneh Torah? It seems pretty clear that Rambam rejects total providence in the Guide as “absurdity”, says nothing about Providence in the 13 Foundations, and nowhere in the MT states the theory of total providence as a necessity, only as a question that the non-enlightened would ask.

In essence, Reb Yid begs the question. He presumes his answer, that “everyone believes in the Beshtian view of Hashgacha Pratit”, and then has to k’neitch the Rambam, by pulling quotes out of context, by reading them through a filter of “of course Kabbalah is true”, to force the Rambam to agree. In this, he joins a long tradition of Kabbalists who, not wanting to leave the Rambam out in the cold as the greatest mind of the Rishonim, finds ways to pretend the Rambam accepted Kabbalah. In fact, though, the Rambam had his own intellectual mysticism, totally unrelated to the neo-Platonic sephirotic emanationism of the [then proto-]Kabbalah. His concept of Divine Providence flows from that, while the Besht’s flows from Kabbalistic antecedents.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

R Hirsch and the Zohar

R Samson b. Raphael Hirsch is not the first name that springs to mind when the subject of Kabbalah comes up. In fact, in his Nineteen Letters #18, he bemoans his lack of initiation into the Kabbalistic mysteries, and remarks upon the danger of Kabbalah, far from the possibility of its informing Mitzvah observance with soul, rather changing mitzvah observance into a "magical mechanism".

However, his entire approach of symbolism, is in essence the same route as kabbalah. His path makes mitzvah observance symbolize ethical and thelogical truths, rather than theosophic and cosmogonic truths, as things which are "shaveh lechol nefesh" - equally approachable by all. Not everyone has a mind to deal with Kabbalah, but every Jew must develop a Torah ethic and approach to God.

Further, it is known that R Hirsch used the Zohar in preparing his monumental Horeb, the philosophy of mitzvot and their symbolism. R' Joseph Breuer wrote of finding a manuscript with notes on the Zohar used for Horeb.

More recent scholarship apparently has started to look into unstated kabbalistic influences on RSRH's writings.

And now R' Hirsch's copy of the Zohar is for sale. It was in his family since his grandfather's day, in the late 18th century (printed Amsterdam 1715, by Proops). It came down to R' Joseph Breuer, then his descendants, and is now for some reason for sale at the upcoming Kestenbaum auction (#40, on 26 June 2008). It was given to RSRH by his father, R' Raphael Hirsch, as a wedding present. The catalogue description doesn't mention any marginal notes, though.

Kestenbaum Catalogue #40, p. 41
Dayan Grunfeld's introduction to Hirsch' Horeb, pp. cxx-cxxix.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Clue by four

So I was leining Ruth the other day in shul, and the same question occurred to me that does every year, and every year I forget the various good answers that people offer - so maybe they don't impress me so much.

I asked D___ my lovely wife, who has also learned it in depth, and she came up with a good answer.

The problem is, what was so great about Boaz and Ruth in the barn?

I mean, they get to Bethlehem, and Ruth goes out to glean barley in the fields. Naomi already thinks Boaz would be a good guy for her, in both the field-redemption and husband categories, but doesn't say anything, although she does let him know through the rumor-mill.

Ruth goes out gathering, and meets Boaz, and they hit it off right away.

Naomi tells her "OK, now you have to force him to marry you - sneak into the barn under cover of darkness, and fall asleep on his legs [family jewels? I don't know if that was a biblical usage]."

She does so, Boaz wakes up to find this nice girl in his lap, then gives her instructions how things will be arranged so they can get married. Which they do.

So why does Ruth have to force him to redeem the field and marry her, if they hit it off anyway? Is it a class thing? She puts him in a deliberately embarrassing situation - yichud, isolation together for more than 20 minutes, forcing him to marry her, although he takes care to make sure she isn't seen leaving (Wake up little Ruthie!)

D__'s answer: because some guys, even if they like you, you have to hit them over the head with a two-by-four to get them to do something about it. As it was with us. And even more extremely with her Uncle Charlie and Aunt Rose - they had been dating, but he hadn't done anything towards marriage, so she arranged the wedding and sent him an invitation. And out of that family came several children, including two rabbis, most of whom had good marriages themselves.

So Ruth/Naomi had to hit Boaz over the head with a clue-by-four to convince him to actually marry Ruth and redeem the field and increase in both happiness and wealth.