Monday, November 15, 2010

Meatloaf for the mind: How and why the Achronim changed the way we think about the Sage's infallibility

You won't see this on any of the fraudulently frum blogs written by men who make a fetish out of being "traditional" but an essay has just been published by a noted Torah scholar that conclusively explodes one of their most cherished ideas.

The idea in dispute is this notion that the Sages of the Talmud possessed a divine source of knowledge for their statements about the natural world.  I've attacked this foolishness using quotes from various Geonim and Rishonim who obviously disagreed. I've attempted to show that their so-called traditional view was rejected 800-1000 years ago. But the self-styled traditionalists, largely, respond by sticking their fingers in the ears. 

R. Slifkin's 30 page essays shows how an obscure passage on BT Pesachim 94b was taken by the Rishonim and the Geonim as a concession to non-Jewish astronomers on the part of the Sages regarding a question of cosmology. As R. Slifkin demonstrates, most of the early authorities wrote about the Sage's admission of error with no concern, seeming to take it for granted that such errors were possible.

Around the 16th century, something changed in the Jewish mentality and the familiar apologetics began. Instead of seeing the passage as a concession of an error on the part of the Sages, the Achronim put forward elaborate explanations including such favorites as "the natural order has changed" and "the Sages were speaking in symbolic language." R. Yonasan Eybeschutz even attempts some wishy-washy relativism, arguing that the Jewish and gentiles scholars approached the facts of astronomy from two different frames of reference and therefore both sides were right.

I'm not sure how to explain the behavior of the Achronim, but I think its possible that some of the forces that are causing the slide to the right we speak about today were at work in their time as well. Today, Judaism is moving to the right (by which I mean it is becoming more superstition, less thoughtful, and more cowardly) because so many of the old familiar ways have been undone. We don't live in Europe anymore, and technology has changed the way we live and think. When things are unstable, we fall back on what's easy and familiar. The mysteries and magic of Judaism, including a belief in the infallibility and mofsos-making abilities of the Sages, are intellectual comfort food. They're meatloaf for the mind.  

Something else that happens in times of stress is the glorification of elders and previous eras. With the expulsions from Spain, Portugal, Sicily and some German cities at the end of the 15th century , the creation of the first ghetto in 1516 and the arrival of the first Yiddish book in 1534 it was obvious that the Jewish world had changed dramatically. Not coincidently, this is also when the era of the Rishonim ended. At that moment as Jews begin to think that their own sages were categorically different from the sages of the previous century, the idea of the Sages infallibility started to take root.  We live in a similar time today. The era of the achronim has just ended, we're building new communities, new "Torah centers" in Israel and America, and, like the Jews of the 16th century, we, too, are experiencing a slide to the right. 

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