Saturday, January 5, 2008

On the Buckwold-Soloveitchik exchange

In the Journal Beis HaVaad, in appendix 2 of his article, Prof. Havlin discusses the conflict between scientific and traditional methods of Torah study as brought to fore in Chaim Potok's "The Promise".

His final statement there:לצערנו לא הועמד עדיין הויכוח על בסיס נכון ומבוסס

Nowhere does this conflict stand out as clearly as in the recent Torah-U Maddah article containing the exchange between R' Buckwold and Prof. Soloveitchik on the Rabad. S. comes to the forum as a historian - with no small Talmudic ability, and R' Buckwold as a traditional scholar - but with a good historical background.

Of particular interest here is the last part of this article. In this, we are pointed to a statement of the Rabad which bases itself on a Rif that appears to be irrelevant. Buckwold's solution - typical of a traditional scholar - is to point to a Ramban with a clear-cut source, consider a reason why this source alone would not be sufficient and then explain that the Rif is cited by the Rabad to resolve this difficulty.

Or as Soloveitchik puts it (see pg 233 ff.) -
"R. Buckwold claims that Rabad knew of the argument subsequently advanced by Ramban, that he further perceived a flaw in Ramban’s explication of the proof text and then tried to resolve that problem with a citation from Alfasi. The assumption of R. Buckwold is that any convincing proof of a talmudist’s position adduced by another talmudist, be it a decade or a half century or even centuries later, was known to the first talmudist but rejected by him. This indeed is how one “does law,” “does Talmud” and “does philosophy.” One postulates total knowledge on the part of great thinkers, and then one proceeds to analyze their positions. Every new argument is judged first on its own merit, and if it passes muster, it is then retrojected onto the original proponent of the position.

A historian looks at a thing as it is at the time of its occurrence or formulation, and the first thing that he takes care not to do—is to project the subsequent onto the precedent, the present or what was once in the future onto the past. History means seeing things as they evolve, it entails a realization that institutions and ideas often achieve clarity only slowly. A correct position may be intuited, but only later will the convincing argument for that position be discovered..."

We have here the conflict between the two methods of study clearly spelled out. Soloveitchik writes that the ideas and sources that the traditional scholar will uncover are certainly valid in and of themselves - but as a way of understanding what the Ravid himself was saying - i.e. the historical Ravid they are wholly insufficient.

Soloveitchik's continues:
"The question for a historian is not: What is the best argument that can be made for Rabad’s position, but what did Rabad actually think? Rabad wrote short responsa, longer responsa and very long responsa, all as occasion demanded.50 He also did not write in runes. He could express himself with remarkable bite and clarity. Indeed, no one in the history of Halakhah could say more in fewer words than he. In his glosses to Mishneh Torah, he often formulated memorable doctrines in ten to fifteen words. If the writer could express himself well and the surviving text isn’t fragmentary, then what isn’t there can’t be entered on his ledger."

Soloveitchiks' point here is somewhat self-contradictory. On the one hand - "the Rabad did not write in runes". On the other, he formulated memorable doctrines in ten to 15 words.

I have studied enought Hasagot to say that Soloveitchik severely understates the case. The Rabad could express memorable doctrines- not only in ten to fifteen words- but in less then five words. I do not have the time now to search for relevant examples but it is not uncommon for a brief statement of the Rabad to require all the ingenuity of the Nosei Kelim to attempt to uncover exactly what the Rabad was intending to be Masig. The Rabad unquestionably did speak in runes and riddles (at least in Hasagot) that assumed the reader would automatically take note of the relevant sugya he refers to.

Additionally, I cannot easily accept Soloveitchik's claim that if a proof isn't cited we must assume that it escaped the Talmudists mind for the moment. This may be the historians POV but it is nonetheless no more correct. Those immersed in the field of Rabbinics will know how frequently a prominent Talmudist appears to have forgotten a clear proof- but in fact it turns out that he had seen it but had found it difficult (The Responsa contatain many illustrations of this. I will try to search for good examples). It is rare (though possible) for a Talmudist when asked to say that he simply hadn't thought of the point. One cannot forget that we deal here with men who devoted their entire lives towards the study of the Talmud. A clearly relevant sugya to their discussion (as the sugyot in Kiddushin are here) could not have escaped their mind.

Soloveitchiks own explanation is simply inadequate. It is certainly true that the Rabad who famously declared כבר שרתה רוח הקדש בבית מדרשינו (there is some disagreement as to how literally this is to be taken) might have relied on his own intuition as Soloveitchik suggests, but it is difficult to understand why he would have cited a Rif that would clearly seem to be irrelevant to the topic at hand (Shechiv MeRa is a special case that cannnot be extrapolated to other areas).

We have here in this article a clear exposition on the differences between Talmudist and Scientist. The relevant value of each to the study of Talmud still needs to be fully evaluated.


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