The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Cassini Saturn+1

I haven't mentioned Cassini lately, but the first anniversary of it's arrival at Saturn was last Friday. To mark the day, the link above gives what the Cassini people list as the 10 most important discoveries of the first year. The day before, Cassini made another close pass of Enceladus. Results should be available soon.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Rational Rabbis

I've been rereading recently Menachem Fisch's 1997 book of this title. Fisch is a philosopher of science, which has led him to what I find to be fascinating reflections on the methodology and intentions of the Babylonian amoraim.

The first part of his book explains what he means by "rational inquiry". It is a process characterized by testing and troubleshooting both the subject matter of field of study and its methodology. As an example, he gives the field of science which endeavours to understand and explain the functioning of the world. Certain problems present themselves, and science produces theories to resolve these problems. In turn, these theories make predictions, and should the predictions be born out, the theory is strengthened. On the other hand, theories whose predictions are contradicted by observation are rejected. But, more than this, a rational study is one where the standards themselves by which success in solving problems are measured, are themselves subject to such troubleshooting.

It is Fisch's thesis that the Talmudic sages were engaged on just such a rational endeavour. This is not to say that they were doing science. Far from it. Rather, they applied the rational approach to Torah.

In the Tannaitic material recorded in the Bavli, especially the material relating to the Yeshiva in Yavne, Fisch discerns a dispute between two schools of thought, or attitudes, towards the development of Torah shel b'al peh. The first, exemplified, or stereotyped, by R. Eliezer ben Hyrqanus, is what he calls traditionalist. The traditionalist holds that the strongest support for a viewpoint is that it was learned from one's teachers extending back to Moshe b'Sinai. In the traditionalist's view, precedent is absolute.

Opposing the traditionalist, is the anti-traditionalist who, in Fisch's view, is a rational actor. Tradition must be tested against new cases and more developed thoughts, and, where necessary, refuted and overturned. For the anti-traditionalist, everything is open to question.

In Fisch's reading, the Bavli's version of the Yavne stories clearly supports the anti-traditionalists, most tellingly in the famous dispute regarding the tanuro shel acknai (Bava Metzia 59a-b), the story where we learn Lo be shamaim he, that the Torah is not in heaven, but decided by the Beis Din in this world.

By the time the amoraim were developing the Bavli, the anti-traditionalist position was triumphant and the issue no longer in dispute. Yet, the compilers of the Bavli chose to write as if the opposite were the case. Nonetheless, they left sufficient hints that the advanced study should be able to learn how he ought to conduct his study. Fisch's prime example is the sugya on Berachos19b where a revolutionary statement of R. Yehuda in the name of Rav is discussed. Fisch does a much better job of discussing the implications of this sugya than I ever could, but the essence of the discussion is that although Rav's dictum stands in blatant contradiction to the proceeding mishnah, the confrontation is completely ignored, and the later position is adopted as normative. It is as if to highlight the fact that the amoraim felt free to rewrite the halachic system where necessary.

And yet, as it has come down to us, the anti-traditionalists have vanished to the extent that their voice is no longer heard. According to Fisch, it is because they tried to do too much simultaneously when the Bavli was compiled. They tried to set it up to be read both as an undergraduate textbook on the surface, and as a graduate level research notebook for the advanced student. In the end, however, the project was just too complex to continue for generations. A problem the compilers of the gemara themselves feared as Fisch shows in his reading of the tragic ending to the lives of R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish (Bava Metzia84a).

Fisch brings one further contrast between the traditionalist and the anti-traditionalist viewpoints that I find fascinating, and which parallels the development of science. He learns this from the story in Menachos 29b, once again in the name of R. Yehuda, in the name of Rav, where the tale is told of Moshe Rabbenu's visit to the academy of R. Akiva. And poor Moshe doesn't understand a word of what is going on, although he is comforted to hear R. Akiva say that what they are learning comes from Sinai.

As Fisch explains the passage, we are being taught that the development of halacha is something that can only be understood retrospectively, not prospectively. This is characteristic of a rational inquiry where it is impossible to predict what problems will need to be solved, and by what methods, and with what information, they will be resolved. This is essentially the anti-traditionalist's position. Halacha is subject to review as circumstances warrant. For the traditionalist, on the other hand, there is no problem looking at history from either direction, for halacha is not subject to change.

Fisch's book is much richer in argument and example than what I am able to put in this review. I strongly recommend it to those who are not afraid of a non-traditional perspective. The corollaries of this approach for current discussions on Chazal and Science, are left, for the present, to the reader.