Monday, October 30, 2006

Judaic Literature – Providing a Proof of Judaism


[Rabbi Moshe Feinstein; one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century]


One of the strange and unique features of Judaism is the structure of Judaic literature.

Judaic literature was written in five stages with authors in the later stages never contradicting those in the earlier stages:

- The prophets; 1300 BCE to 300 BCE.
- The early rabbis; 300 BCE to 200 CE
- The Talmudic rabbis; 200 CE to 500 CE
- The Talmudic commentaries; 500 CE to 1500 CE
- The commentators on the Talmudic commentaries; 1500 CE to 1950 CE.

Other religions, and correct me if I’m wrong, will generally have two stages – the founder and the commentators on the founder. There is the New Testament and canon law, the Koran and the Sharia, etc. The founder of course has special importance, however after him any great scholar is entitled to offer an opinion. In the Catholic Church, for example, Doctors of the Church continue to be added up to the present.

In Judaism, a rabbi living in 1000 CE would never have considered contradicting a rabbi who lived in 100 CE and likewise a rabbi living in 1600 CE would never contradict a rabbi living in 1000 CE. Needless to say, no one after 300 BCE claimed to have the gift of prophesy. This is why the canon of the Bible was closed. There was universal reverence for the sages of each earlier era. This is in spite of the fact that since the destruction of the First Temple, 2,400 years ago, the Jewish people have not possessed any central authority capable of declaring and enforcing a new era of Judaic literature. These eras seem to have formed spontaneously because of a universal recognition that current leaders did not possess the spiritual and academic greatness of earlier ones.

In my opinion, this is clearly proof of the great spiritual level which the Jewish people were elevated to 3,300 years ago at Mt. Sinai and which they have been gradually descending from ever since.

22 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In Christianity there isn't distinctions between

- the so-called Old Testament
- Jesus himself
- the synoptic gospels
- the rest of the New Testament
- the writings of the church fathers
- various other layers depending on one's specific Christian orientation

?

jewish philosopher said...

I don't know. Protestants seem to be very "Bible based", believing that only the Bible itself has authority. Catholics seem to go along with the pronouncements of the Pope, who I think can over rule earlier authorities if he wants to, like the Vatican II council did.

Mendel said...

this is clearly proof of the great spiritual level which the Jewish people were elevated to 3,300 years ago at Mt. Sinai and which they have been gradually descending from ever since.

For the average yid at Har Sinai this spiritual elevation was very temporary. The vast majority of the people to leave Mitzrayim had sunk to a very low madreiga, had only a very brief elevation during their encounter with God (hearing only the first two words of the 10 commandments according to one midrash), constantly rebelled against Moshe, and died out in the desert because of their aveirahs. For hundreds of years afterward, Nach repeatedly tells us how involved the Jews were in avodah zarah. Up through the destruction of the 2nd Beis HaMikdash, Jew fought against Jew, the lack of achdus was rampant, many competing sects fought against each other, the Kohen Gadol was a bought position. Much more can be added to this ignoble list.

Your argument may be valid for our religious leaders, but these are a select few. Show me the evidence (don't just feed me quotes about yeridos hadoros) that this high spiritual level and continued decline over the generations has also been true for the masses.

jewish philosopher said...

Perhaps the fact that Jewish literature, which was revered by all Jews, is full of so much self criticism is itself a proof of the high spiritual level of the Jewish people. But that should be a post by itself.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>I don't know. Protestants seem to be very "Bible based", believing that only the Bible itself has authority. Catholics seem to go along with the pronouncements of the Pope, who I think can over rule earlier authorities if he wants to, like the Vatican II council did.

Those are oversimplifications, just as the hierarchy you laid out in the post itself is an oversimplification.

Take the fact that you chose to post a picture of Reb Moshe. Reb Moshe himself argued on rishonim sometimes, without prior support. While its true that in general the later authorities don't argue on the earlier ones without support from another earlier source, the exceptions are too numerous for the rule to really be a rule.

Anonymous said...

Jacob,

Your statement about later rabbis never going against earlier ones is utterly false. Halachic literature from Talmud thru contemporary responsa teems with instances/examples of later rabbis departing from line of earlier ones.

Quite convenient that you feature photo of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, because he ruled that a woman's motive must first be determined before she's permitted to don tefilin, whereas Rav Moshe Coucy ruled that no such motive need be determined.

Ari Sealine

Anonymous said...

>In my opinion, this is clearly proof of the great spiritual level which the Jewish people were elevated to 3,300 years ago at Mt. Sinai and which they have been gradually descending from ever since.

Either that, or it's clear proof that judaism has made no real advances at all since the late bronze age. Scary.

Mikeskeptic

Anonymous said...

Rav Moshe Feinstein himself occasionally argued with the Rishonim. See e.g. Igros Moshe YD 1:47.

These eras seem to have formed spontaneously because of a universal recognition that current leaders did not possess the spiritual and academic greatness of earlier ones.

There is no basis for this assertion. According to R Yosef Karo, it was simply something that each era accepted upon themselves, probably to preserve authority.

jewish philosopher said...

Mikeskeptic, not only has Judaism made no real advances, however it has catastrophically declined over the past 3,300 years. The existence of people like you is proof of that.

Regarding modern rabbis contradicting the leading medieval authorities, can anyone cite one example of a modern period Orthodox rabbi who published a statement along the lines of "Maimonides [or Rashi or Tosofot or the Rosh or the Rashba or the Ritva] stated such and such however that is incorrect; rather the law is etc." Anyone doing so would have been regarding as a fool or worse, for reasons I've stated in this post.

Perhaps the Vilna Gaon made such a comment; he was a unique exception. But why didn't everyone jump in and express their own opinions, contradicting the great medieval commentators?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Regarding modern rabbis contradicting the leading medieval authorities, can anyone cite one example of a modern period Orthodox rabbi who published a statement along the lines of "Maimonides [or Rashi or Tosofot or the Rosh or the Rashba or the Ritva] stated such and such however that is incorrect; rather the law is etc."

They wrote and write with respect and try to avoid langauge which could be interpreted as disrespect. But in effect many modern rabbis did that in the realm of halakhah.

As for exegesis and the like there is even less of a tabboo on language which can be construed as disrespectful, and there you most certainly will find assertions that the Rambam or whomever was incorrect.

As for the Vilna Gaon, either there is a rule or there is no rule. There certainly can be no rule to the effect that one solitary figure who lived in the 18th century can overrule earlier sages. Speaking of which, the Gaon even believed that it was permissible to interpret Mishnayot in a way which contradicts the Gemara's understanding--however it could not effect halakha le-maaseh.

jewish philosopher said...

The only rule is simply the common sense rule that you cannot contradict someone who you don't understand.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>The only rule is simply the common sense rule that you cannot contradict someone who you don't understand.

En hachi nami. It's easy, however, to decide by fiat that "we" don't understand person x, y or z. If, indeed, a person is convinced that they do understand them and cannot agree then it behooves them to do just that.

(Note that hear I am not arguing that a person contravene well established and accepted halakhah, certainly not without a solid source.)

jewish philosopher said...

That's why the Vilna Gaon was possibly an exception.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

As noted above the Gra WASN'T the only person, not by a long shot, who did all of the above.

Furthermore, how can you actually maintain that only the Gra understood his predecessors correctly?

The fact that later authorities are always respectful of the earlier ones and circumspect in evaluating their positions is a positive, praiseworthy phenomenon--insofar as it does not result in a crippling blow to our own self-esteem and creative ability. But that is not the same thing as a rule, even a rule with one or two exceptions.

In any event you've basically noted how it *appears* that rabbinic authorities have behaved (even though closer examination reveals plenty of disagreements with earlier ones) rather than a clear trend of devolution.

Paranthetically, if we are really devolving doesn't it then follow that eventually Jews will be like spiritual amoebas or even worse?

jewish philosopher said...

It's not just that modern rabbis were respectful; they don't actually contradict the great medieval authorities. Did Rabbi Feinstein ever write "Maimonides forbade such and such, however I rule this is permissable"?

Within the same era, rabbis do that all the time.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Did Rabbi Feinstein ever write "Maimonides forbade such and such, however I rule this is permissable"?

He never WROTE that way because, as I said, rabbis are careful to write respectfully, even reverently, about their predecessors, especially if they are viewed as being of a different epoch. But he DID pasken that way, as do many modern rabbanim.

As for matters of hashkafah, you will find even more clear statements to the effect of "___ was wrong." An obvious example if R. Samson Rafael Hirsch's denunciation of the Rambam's philosophy of Judaism in his Nineteen Letters.

Anonymous said...

Jewish Philosopher, noting that modern rabbis don't USUALLY contradict earlier authorities does not mean that the earlier authorities were more intelligent or learned. As noted above, Rav Yosef Karo wrote that it was just due to maintain respect and stability of tradition.

I recommend that before philosophizing, you study a little more.

jewish philosopher said...

"it was just due to maintain respect and stability of tradition"

If so, then why at specifically these intervals? Why not every 30 years or every 100 years? And who made this binding decision on the entire Jewish people? Who enforced it? And why don't other religions do it?

Incidentally, the example given above regarding Igros Moshe YD 1:47 is completely irrelevant. In that responsa, Rabbi Feinstein is ruling on a novel situation and he is not disputing any medieval rabbinical authorities.

My opinion still stands unless someone can find some actual counter examples: modern era Orthodox rabbis have not contradicted medieval rabbinical leaders, with the possible exception of the Vilna Gaon.

Anonymous said...

This is as convincing as "proof" for Catholicism. You're a pretty crappy philosopher, you know that?

jewish philosopher said...

Pretty fabulous philosophy, actually.

What's the proof of Catholicism?

Henry said...

Catholicism does not purport to have a "proof". But the doctrine has developed by a process of evolution. More reading for you to do, this time another nineteenth century author, Cardinal Newman - Development of Christian Doctrine.

People come to Catholicism through reflection on their experiences. If you are really interested, you might like to read another Newman book. "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" is John Henry Cardinal Newman's explanation of his religious views and actions from 1833 to the time of his writing in 1864.

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it