Thursday, June 14, 2012

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


The wisest of the philosophers asked: “We admit that our predecessors were wiser than we. At the same time we criticize their comments, often rejecting them and claiming that the truth rests with us. How is this possible?” The wise philosopher responded: “Who sees further, a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant, for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of the dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant who sees further? …So too we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.” – R. Isaiah di Trani (Rid)[1]

I posted the following on Mi Yodea[2] and I got voted down twice (as of now). Vote “shvache maysehs” here if you dare. I’m more interested in hearing your opinion though. This was my post:
                                  
The fact that someone lived in an earlier generation does not make his opinion better than mine. Nor does the fact that someone is a great rabbi imply that he is a super genius whose opinions are inherently wiser than anyone else's. But just as with any profession if you want to know the answers you go to the pros, so it is with Torah. A Rishon doesn't have more of a say than I do. But Rashi, the Rambam and the Rashba and for that matter my own rabbi, are much more proficient in Torah than I am. They've gone through it all. That is why I generally value their opinion over my own, inasmuch as I value my doctor's opinion over my own when it comes to questions that require medical expertise. And I'm sure you would rather hear the opinion of a professional than that of an amateur, which is why if you ask me a question it is likely that I will try to cite some of the great rabbis instead of simply presenting my own theories.

In support of the idea that an earlier opinion is not better per se than a later one, see R. Ovadia Yosef in his introduction to Halichos Olam, where he writes as follows:

וכמש"כ הגר"ח מוואלוזין בשו"ת חוט המשולש (סי' ט) בזה"ל: ואע"פ שאנכי שמשתי את מו"ר הכהן הגדול ומחוייב אני בכבודו ובמוראו כמורא שמים, מ"מ אני שומר מה שאמרו חז"ל (ב"ב קל:) כד אתי פסקא דדינא קמייכו וחזיתו ביה פירכא לא תגמרו מיניה, שאין לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות. וכבר הוזהרתי מפי מורי קדוש ישראל הגר"א מווילנא שלא לישא פנים בהוראה. וכ"כ עוד בספרו רוח חיים (פ"ד דאבות מ"ד) שאסור לתלמיד לקבל דברי רבו כשיש לו מה להשיב עליהם. כי לפעמים תהיה האמת עמו. כמו שעץ קטן מדליק את הגדול. ע"ש. וע"ע להגר"ח פלאג'י בשו"ת חקרי לב (חיו"ד סי' מב), שאין לת"ח לכבוש את נבואתו בפסקי הלכה, וחייב לגלות דעתו, ונכתב בספר, שאין משוא פנים בדבר. ומרן הקדוש בספר אבקת רוכל (סי' קנה) כתב וז"ל: ואע"פ שהריטב"א והריב"ש בקיאים יותר בפירוש דברי הראשונים, מ"מ במילתא דאיכא טעמא ואיכא למותיב מותבינן דלאו קטלי קני באגמא אנן. ע"ש. ובשו"ת נודע ביהודה קמא (חאו"ח סי' לה) ד"ה ומה, כתב, ואף שבתשו' חות יאיר פסק להיפך, אטו כל מקום שמצאנו הלכה בתשובות האחרונום נחליט כן לדינא, הלא חיך יטעם אוכל. ע"כ. וע' בשו"ת רבי ישעיה הראשון (סי' סב) שכ', ומ"ש מר שלא אחלוק על הרב הגדול רבינו יצחק בעל התוס', חלילה לי מעשות זאת, והגם כי מה אני נחשב לפניו, אך זאת אתי, שכל דבר שאינו נראה בעיני, אפילו אי אמרה יהושע בן נון לא צייתינא ליה. ואיני נמנע לומר הנראה לי לפי שכלי, ואדברה בעדותיך נגד מלכים ולא אבוש, וכמשל הפילוסופים בננס על גבי ענק. ומעולם לא נמנעו האחרונים מלסתור דברי הראשונים, וכמה משניות סתרו האמוראים לומר שאינם הלכה, ואין חכם שיהיה נקי משגיאות.

What thinketh thee?

5 comments:

  1. Thinketh me there is no analogy with any profession.
    What are the chances a person can become a pro on the level of rishonim?

    If I am a doctor with a good reputation and I publish an article in that does not agree with the view of a doctor more experienced and accomplished than I, my research would be examined and there would be no reason to defer to the 'respected' doctor if my argument is just as valid - even if I never disproved the other doctor.

    There is an assumption that earlier generations of rabbis are right in their views to a degree that has no parallel in any profession.

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    1. That was me... Nachum.

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  2. Nachum,

    Thanks for your comment, and I apologize for the delay. Allow me to respond to your points.

    >>What are the chances a person can become a pro on the level of rishonim?

    Clearly you are asking this as a rhetorical question, but I beg to differ with your implication. There are at least a few people around today regarding whom I think it is fair to say they have mastered Shas and Poskim and can answer questions in any area of halacha. I don't see any strong reason to believe that the rishonim had any greater understanding of Torah than them. Some people have it as axiomatic that they did, but I don't know what reasoning might support that. Therefore I say that we can legitimately argue with rishonim, though by "we" I refer to those (very, very) few people who are true masters of Torah, because otherwise of course one's opinion has no standing in the face of the real pros. I should add that this isn't my opinion alone; it is one that I have heard from my rabbeim (if you want names feel free to email me).

    >>If I am a doctor with a good reputation and I publish an article in that does not agree with the view of a doctor more experienced and accomplished than I, my research would be examined and there would be no reason to defer to the 'respected' doctor if my argument is just as valid - even if I never disproved the other doctor.

    I suppose I didn't explain myself well enough. I'm talking about you or me deciding whether we should follow an 'expert' rabbi or our own reasoning. Assuming we have not each achieved the mastery I mentioned above, it would be unwise for us to follow our reasoning alone without deferring to the pros. Of course, if the pros analyze your reasoning and find it faultless, or if you have mastered the subject matter enough to make such a judgement yourself, then it wouldn't be unreasonable anymore to follow your opinion. But otherwise it would be reckless. In this way I see the doctor analogy as accurate, i.e. I who knows nothing about medicine should not be deciding to take medicine x for my situation instead of medicine y, if the doctor says otherwise. Since I acknowledge that I am not an expert, and I don't have any expert opinion that agrees with me, it would be simply reckless for me not to defer to the expert who disagrees.

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    1. My point is...
      The sentence "But just as with any profession if you want to know the answers you go to the pros, so it is with Torah" and the paragraph in general came off as if Torah expertise is similar to other professions... I think it is not a fair analogy.

      Regardless, I understood your point. I do not think we're gonna get anywhere with this because I don't think we really disagree. At that moment - I just didn't like the way your point was framed and was in the mood for commenting.

      Nachum

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  3. Well I guess the Mi Yodea down-voters shared your sentiments... At any rate, I appreciate your comments. Thanks for stopping by! :)

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