Monday, September 14, 2009

Maaseh avot siman l'bonim

I'M INTRIGUED, I THINK BY THE DISAGREEMENT between the Rashi supercommentaries and the Spanish grammarians discussed below because I see echoes of it in my own life and the world around me, as follows:

Ibn Ezra and Radak came from a world, where it was okay to doubt, question and even reject midrashim. Evidence that this was allowed is provided by various quotes, from various Spaniards and Moroccans, who appear to have based themselves on earlier statements by the Babylonian Geonim. For a Medieval Spaniard or Moroccan there was nothing impious or heretical about disregarding midrashim, but by the time the Rashi super commentaries arrived on the scene, that had changed. They hows and the whys behind this shift are difficult to discover, and beyond the scope of this little post, but it seems (again from various quotes and comments) that doubting midrashim was not the done thing in the world of Mizrachi and Maharal.

Maharal and Ibn Ezra were several centuries apart, but I guess things move faster now. When I read (here) that the Rashi super commentaries objected to Ibn Ezra on the grounds that he was differing from "chachmei haEmet" and seeking to undermine "a midrash, from Chazal... transmitted via tradition, one man to the next, all the way back to Moshe Rabbenu who heard it from the Almighty" I thought to myself this is wildly unfair. How can ibn Ezra be held to rules he didn't acknowledge, and how can he be judged impious for following the religious rules of his own society?

Readers of this blog may remember that I've found myself in similar circumstances. For instance, there was the time I saw a defender of the very old Friday night Yigdal custom accused of propagating a modern Young Israel minhag, or the time I was told that a beloved custom from my childhood (also very old, older in fact than Hasidut) was the invention of moderns who didn't know any better.

A second parallel, relates to the famous Slifkin debate that raged during the early days of my blogging carer. The details of the disagreement, also, are beyond the scope of this post (and anyway, who among blog readers is ignorant of that famous miscarriage of justice?) At bottom, the disagreement between the Slifkinites and the Creationists was one of epistemology. Those who supported Slifkin said truth could be discovered via observation, and that a contradiction between observation and the received tradition, was evidence the tradition was wrong or had been misunderstood. Their opponents found this impossible to accept, and said, in  essence, that not only is tradition always right, but the traditional understanding of the tradition is likewise always right.

As we think about biology, Ibn Ezra and Radak thought about grammar. Sort of. My point is they thought the rules they and their predecessors had discovered about Biblical grammar were true, and because the rules about the language of the Torah were true, a received tradition that seemed to oppose these rules couldn't stand. As noted, the Rashi super-commentaries took the opposite view, and went to war in defense of their understanding of the traditional understanding of the tradition.

Halivny writes, as an aside, in one of his discussions about Jewish exegesis, that piety accumulates. We get frumer and frumer as time passes. My own experiences confirms this, and the reaction of the super commentaries to the Ibn Ezra's perceived impiety confirms this, and a hundred dozen other things confirm, it too.

But the confirmation makes the reality no less frustrating

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