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From Black Fire to White Fire: Conversations about Religious Tanakh Methodology

Thursday, September 4 2008

R. Pinehas says in the name of R. Shimon b. Lakish: The Torah that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave to Moses was given to him from white fire inscribed by black fire. It was fire, mixed with fire, hewn from fire and given by fire, as is written: "From His right a fiery law to them" (Deut. 33:2) (J.T.Shekalim 6:1, 25b).

This mesmerizing Midrash, so emblematic of Jewish thought, captures the life force of Torah. It is not merely dry ink written on dead parchment. Its words live, and the silent white parchment beneath represents the non-verbal depth and sanctity underlying God's revealed word.

How can we mediate between the infinite word of God and our own finite understanding? How do we balance different approaches to biblical study? When teaching Tanakh to advanced undergraduate students at Yeshiva College, I introduce some major issues in learning methodology the second week of each semester, and then my students and I continue the dialogue throughout the term. In this essay, I first survey the main issues addressed in that methodology class, and then present eight (lightly edited) questions from my students representative of the most frequently discussed methodological issues, followed by my (lightly edited) responses.



In his introduction to the Song of Songs, Malbim (1809-1879) addresses the religious imperative to begin all learning with peshat, and only from there to move to deeper levels:

Most interpretations [of Song of Songs]...are in the realm of allusion and derush; distant from the settlement of peshat...Of course we affirm that divine words have seventy facets and one thousand dimensions. Nonetheless, the peshat interpretation is the beginning of knowledge; it is the key to open the gates, before we can enter the sacred inner chambers of the King.


If we attempt to penetrate the deeper levels of Tanakh without examining its words in their context, we will end up staring at blank parchment. Alternatively, if we focus on the words without seeing them as a means to the higher end of encountering God, we are left with ink, but no fire.[1]

We struggle to balance rigorous analysis and spiritual experience when learning any area of Torah. R. Aharon Lichtenstein touches on this balance in a broader analysis of Modern Orthodoxy:

I believe that the sin lurking at the door of the Centrist Orthodox or Religious Zionist community, the danger which confronts us and of which we need to be fully aware, is precisely the danger of shikhecha [forgetfulness-HA]. Unlike other communities, this is a community which is not so susceptible to avoda zara [idolatry-HA] in its extension-attitudes the Rambam battled against, such as superstition and gross or primitive conceptions of God-because it is more sophisticated intellectually, religiously, and philosophically. Unfortunately, however, it is very, very susceptible to extended kefira[heresy-HA] or shikhecha, lacking the immanent sense of God felt so deeply, keenly, and pervasively in other parts of the halakhically-committed Jewish world.[2]


Similarly, when extolling two of his great rabbinic heroes-R. Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993) and R. Benzion Uziel (1880-1953)-R. Marc D. Angel quotes the Jerusalem Talmud, which states that the path of Torah has fire to its right and ice to its left. Followers of the Torah must attempt to walk precisely in middle (J.T. Haggigah 2:9).[3]

Another ever-present struggle relates to our turning to the talmudic Sages and post-talmudic rabbinic commentators for guidance. They were truly exceptional scholars who viewed the biblical text as the revealed word of God; they therefore serve as our ultimate teachers. Simultaneously, we must consider them as our "eyes to the text" rather than as substitutes for the text.[4] We try our utmost to learn Tanakh in the manner that our mefarshim (commentators) did. We need our mefarshim to teach us how to learn and think; but we also need to distinguish between text and interpretation.

While much has been written to define the term peshat, I prefer the working definition of its being the primary intent of the author.[5] Our goal is to allow Tanakh to transform us, rather than imposing our logic and values onto the text. On each verse, however, there is debate as to what that primary intent is. How should we proceed if even our greatest interpreters are uncertain? Addressing this critical issue,Ramban (1194-c. 1270) stresses that Torah study is not an exact science, and is subject to strands of interpretation that require careful evaluation:

Anyone who studies our Talmud knows that the arguments between its interpreters do not have absolute proofs...it is not like mathematics...Rather, we must exert all of our efforts in every debate to push aside one of the views with compelling logical arguments...and consider most likely the view that fits the smooth reading of the text and its parallels along with good logic. This is the best we can do, and the intent of every wise and God-fearing person studying the wisdom of the Talmud (introduction to hisMilhamot Hashem commentary on the Talmud).[6]


More emphatically, R. Avraham b. HaRambam (1186-1237) argues that the blind acceptance of one view over another on the basis of authority as opposed to critical evaluation is against the Torah's supreme value of truth:

One who wishes to uphold a known view and to elevate the one who said it, and to accept his view without analysis and evaluation whether this view is true or not-this is a bad trait. It is forbidden according to the Torah and according to logic. It is illogical for it indicates inadequate comprehension of what needs to be believed; and it is forbidden according to the Torah for it strays from the path of truth...The Sages do not accept or reject views except on the basis of their truth and proofs, not because the one who says them is who he is (Mavo ha-Aggadot, chapter 2).


Please note: R. Avraham b. HaRambam wrote these words in his introduction to aggadah, not halakhah. In the realm of halakhah, there is necessity for a system of authority and weight of precedent. It is critical to bear in mind that the rules of halakhah and aggadah are fundamentally different. Halakhah operates primarily under the principle of issur ve-heter (what is forbidden and what is permitted), whereas aggadah operates primarily under the principle of emet ve-sheker (truth and falsity).[7] In halakhah, talmudic passages are intended as literal and generally accepted as binding.[8] In aggadah, talmudic passages often are intended as allegorical. Even when they are understood literally, however, later commentators reserve the right to disagree with them.[9] This distinction is presented as self-evident by R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654), author of the Tosafot Yom Tov commentary on the Mishnah (I have added several clarifying points in brackets):

Rambam wrote...even though the Gemara did not interpret [the Mishnah] in that manner. Since there is no practical legal difference, permission is granted to interpret [the Mishnah in a manner different from the Gemara's interpretation]. I see no difference between interpreting Mishnah and interpreting Scripture. Regarding Scripture, permission is granted to interpret [differently from how the Gemara interprets] as our own eyes see in the commentaries written since the time of the Gemara. However, we must not make any halakhic ruling that contradicts the Gemara (commentary on Nazir 5:5).


This tension leads to another balance-one between hiddush (novel interpretations) and time-honored understandings of the text. It can be difficult to re-evaluate time-honored interpretations even when attractive alternatives present themselves. Citing his grandfather Rashi's (1040-1105) paradigmatic integrity in learning, Rashbam (c. 1085-c. 1158) inspires us to realize that the infinite depth of Tanakh necessarily means that we can never exhaust its meaning:

Rabbi Shelomo (=Rashi), my mother's father, the enlightener of the eyes of the Exiles, interpreted Tanakh according to its plain sense. And I, Shemuel the son of Meir his son-in-law of blessed memory debated with him in his presence. He admitted to me that were he to have more time, he would have had to compose different commentaries in accordance with the new interpretations that are innovated each day (Rashbam on Gen. 37:2).


Or, in Abarbanel's (1437-1508) words:

And even though the hearts [i.e., minds] of the ancients are like the opening of the ulam [the great open area of the temple-HA]... and we are nothing[10], still we have a portion and inheritance in the house of our Father and there are many openings [to advance fresh insights] for us and our children forever. Always, all day long, a latter-day [sage] will arise...who seeks the word of the Lord-if he seeks it like silver he will...find food for his soul that his ancestors did not envisage; for it is a spirit in man and the Lord is in the heavens to give wisdom to fools and knowledge and discretion to the youth (Ateret Zekenim, p. 3).[11]


Simultaneously, it is worthwhile to ask cautiously why nobody has thought of a particular novel idea. If there are fifteen proposed answers to a problem, there is room for a sixteenth; but it serves us well to consider the earlier fifteen before reaching any conclusions.

Perhaps the most difficult road to navigate pertains to the use of non-Orthodox scholarship. On the one hand, our tradition's commitment to truth should lead us to accept the truth from whoever says it. Rambam (1138-1204) lived by this axiom,[12] and many of the greatest rabbinic figures before and after him similarly espoused this principle.[13] R. Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (c. 1225-1291) reformulated the same principle with a halakhic twist: "A person should learn whatever he is capable [of learning] from those who speak the truth, even if they are non-believers, just as one takes honey from a bee."[14] On the other hand, it is difficult to distinguish between true knowledge and theory. Theory almost always is accompanied by conscious and unconscious biases, some of which may stray from traditional Jewish thought and belief. Dr. Norman Lamm has set the tone for this inquiry:

Torah is a "Torah of truth," and to hide from the facts is to distort that truth into myth...It is this kind of position which honest men, particularly honest believers in God and Torah, must adopt at all times, and especially in our times. Conventional dogmas, even if endowed with the authority of an Aristotle-ancient or modern-must be tested vigorously. If they are found wanting, we need not bother with them. But if they are found to be substantially correct, we may not overlook them. We must then use newly discovered truths the better to understand our Torah-the "Torah of truth."[15]


The tension in our tradition is expressed in an anecdote cited by R. Yosef ibn Aknin (c. 1150-c. 1220). After noting the works of several great rabbinic predecessors who utilized Christian and Muslim writings in their commentaries, he quotes a story related by Shemuel HaNagid (993-1056):

R. Mazliah b. Albazek the rabbinic judge of Saklia told [Shemuel HaNagid] when he came fromBaghdad...that one day in [R. Hai Gaon's (939-1038)] yeshivah they studied the verse, "let my head not refuse such choice oil" (Psa. 141:5), and those present debated its meaning. R. Hai of blessed memory told R. Mazliah to go to the Catholic Patriarch and ask him what he knew about this verse, and this upset [R. Mazliah]. When [R. Hai] saw that R. Mazliah was upset, he rebuked him: "Our saintly predecessors who are our guides solicited information on language and interpretation from many religious communities-and even of shepherds, as is well known!"[16]


In a sense, true learning is threatening, since it is difficult to maintain a view passionately when conscious that at any moment we may learn a new opinion that challenges our conviction. At the same time, precisely this energy is one of the most invigorating aspects of Torah study. When kept in focused balance, the tensions that confront us in traditional study afford us constant opportunities to learn from the past wealth of interpretation while forging ahead in our personal attempts to enter the infinite world of Tanakh, so that we may encounter God in His palace.




On the last assignment, before I cited my proofs, I commented that "it seems unacceptable to assume that the leaders of Israel would strike such a serious covenant with the Givonim without checking with Yehoshua first." You commented, "You shouldn't impose your logic onto the text."

I have to admit that this comment left me a bit perplexed. It has always seemed to me that ourmefarshim (commentators) do impose their logic onto the text. For example, Ramban (on Shemot 32:4): "there is no fool in the world that would think that the gold that was in their ears is what took them out fromEgypt..." (regarding the Golden Calf). Isn't Ramban imposing his logic onto the text?



To some degree, you are correct-all mefarshim enter the fray with certain values and a sense of logic (although they often will debate the boundaries).[17] However, we often impose far more logic onto the text than is warranted, especially when there are other logical options available. Our priority is to work out what the text really might be saying. Making too many assumptions at the outset clouds our ability to read what is actually there.


During shiur after discussing two or three options of our commentators, you offer what you believe is a more likely approach. I think this is incorrect. It is not our place to decide which commentators are right or wrong, rather to learn as many as we can and accept them all as possibilities.



You are addressing one of the most important underlying assumptions of all learning. It is raised often each semester, and it is based on a profound respect for our mefarshim. I very much share that respect, and want to explain where the communication gap arises. First, let's do a quick review of the principles from the second week of shiur: Ramban: all God-fearing Jews must evaluate opinions against the primary text. R. Avraham ben HaRambam: the blind acceptance of opinions without critical evaluation is anti-Torah. What we are doing in shiur carefully follows these axioms, and not doing that is a problem.

Here is where I think your misunderstanding lies: there are two elements in learning the words of ourmefarshim: we must consider what they actually say, and their method of learning. Regarding what they actually say, there almost invariably is a debate, given the infinite complexity of the material. As a result, we must consider where each parshan is coming from to the best of our ability. The other component of learning, however, requires that we evaluate the various opinions against the evidence. As Ramban and R. Avraham ben HaRambam stress, this is how everyone must learn. In other words, we must adopt their method of learning, which means evaluating all views to the best of our ability.

HOWEVER, our learning is quite obviously not on par with that of the mefarshim. Ramban does not think it is possible for the greatest gedolim- Ramban himself included-to reach absolute conclusions, how much more so for us. Given that conscious recognition of our own shortcomings, we must do our best, with a constant openness to all of their approaches and the knowledge that we very often might be missing something. This is the challenging obligation of talmud Torah.



I understand that we see the author's intent as our first goal in learning Tanakh but I have a problem with the way we go about reaching this goal. It is possible that the most literal interpretation is the best; at other times, some Ancient Near Eastern background will give us an interpretation closer to the intent[18]; or maybe we do have a true received tradition. If so this feels very uncomfortable, since the whole undertaking becomes very subjective, as we will end up adopting what feels right to us.



You are right. This is why learning is a life-long pursuit, and why even the greatest of minds can only approach what they believe to be the most likely interpretation (and that also can be modified over time). Ramban's introduction to Milhamot Hashem remains our guide: we need to try our utmost to be faithful to a text with its words, surrounding context and parallels. We constantly need to re-evaluate the material. While there always is a subjective component as well (we cannot transcend that, though our goal is to try to be "objective"), we insist that the text must stand at the center of inquiry, in which case we have done our best trying to anchor ourselves in what Tanakh is trying to teach us rather than just accepting something because it "feels" right. There may be debate over the boundaries of peshat and derash on any passage, but it is not ALL relative. The rigorous standards of peshat require the more likely/less likely analysis, where we try our utmost to transcend what we would like to see and try to see what is there.


Are we are allowed to use the methodology of the mefarshim to reach a novel interpretation? Or should we reject that interpretation simply on the basis that the mefarshim most probably thought of our answer and rejected it, even though we don't know why?



1. Tanakh is divine revelation; as a result, the sum of all human interpretation cannot ever exhaust its entire meaning. Therefore, there is room for hiddush, and this is why hiddushei Torah are and always will be published. Rashbam (on Bereshit 37:2) makes this point emphatically, noting that his grandfather Rashi constantly updated his own commentary, as well. Additionally, even small people might discover things that great people missed.[19]


2. At the same time, you are right that we must be cautious. Given that our mefarshim are the greatest minds ever to have approached these texts, we need to ask ourselves: why is it that nobody has thought of the interpretation I have come up with? Often enough we are the ones who are missing something. But we cannot reject a hiddush in principle just because nobody has thought of it before.



All else being equal, can we assume that the earliest interpretation should be considered the most likely? Perhaps we can say that like the principle of entropy that as time goes on, like in the game "telephone," the meaning will get more garbled. Then again, if my "telephone theory" were true then why would a later commentator suggest an alternative explanation?



You answer your question yourself. The assumption clearly is not correct, as later mefarshim had better things to do with their time than compose perushim that they knew were categorically inferior. So, let us figure out what is wrong with your assumption.

In an ideal sense, the learning process actually should yield the opposite effect: the most recent interpreter enjoys the greatest advantage, since he has access to all earlier opinions and can evaluate everything more fully. This has nothing to do with who is greater and who is not,[20] but rather the famed "dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants" principle.[21] In halakhah, we have a strong desire to preserve stability in halakhic interpretation so that people know what to do. Consequently, earlier opinions often (but by no means always[22]) enjoy a more privileged position than later ones. In the realm of emet ve-sheker-R. Avraham ben HaRambam's strong formulation and Ramban's gentler formulation are what our mefarshim live by-the relentless pursuit of truth for the sake of Heaven. This is why new perushim always will be written.[23]

That all being said, the most recent opinion may not be the best, of course. We are obligated to study earlier and more recent opinions and evaluate all views accordingly.



I certainly believe very much in mesorah and that Rishonim have a much better understanding of Gemara than we ever could. I am comfortable with the idea that Hazal often say derashot that are not intended as literal, but they say it to teach us a lesson. However, you say that later commentators are willing to say that Hazal meant some things as literal, yet they disagree with Hazal. To say that Hazal were flat out wrong and seems borderline blasphemous.



You must be extraordinarily cautious about using terms such as "blasphemous," etc. It pains me how frequently terms like "blasphemous" are abused today. The greatest parshanim writing peshatcommentaries on Tanakh disagree with you. Whether you mean to or not, you are calling them (borderline) blasphemous. That is zilzul hakhamim (degradation of our rabbinic sages), for which one must repent.

In ALL cases, we try our utmost to explain Hazal's intent, whether or not they intended their words as literal. Hazal are not telling cute little bedtime stories, but are trying to teach deep religious truths (I do not like the expression, "it's just a Midrash"-Hazal are profound whether they are using history or literary imagination to convey their truths).

[Epilogue: the electronic dialogue with this student was followed by a lengthy in-person conversation. He realized that his prior assumptions were not borne out by our mefarshim; he adjusted his way of thinking, and subsequently became one of my all-time greatest students.]



R. Yosef ibn Aknin quotes the Gemara in Megillah that anyone who says "devar hokhmah" (words of wisdom) from a non-Jew is called a hakham (wise person). How does this fit with the ma'amar Hazal(statement of our Sages) that if one says there's hokhmah (wisdom) amongst the nations, believe them. If they tell you Torah among the nations, do not believe them?



Many mefarshim operate under the principle of hearing the truth from whoever says it. This includes the areas of mahshavah and parshanut. From that point of view, R. Yosef ibn Aknin is quoting the approach that suits what he is doing, whereas his detractors would quote the Gemara you are quoting. What I tried to stress in shiur is that it is inappropriate to reject R. Yosef's approach categorically; that amounts to a condemnation of those gedolei Torah who did use external interpretations when explaining Torah.

However, there remains the all-important educational caveat, since knowledge often is accompanied by beliefs and biases. Everyone enters the fray with biases. When non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews enter they bring assumptions with them that often are incompatible with our tradition. Therefore, much caution is in order, and there is an age-old debate how this approach should be applied for different people (e.g., may only gedolim learn this, or everyone, at what age, etc.).



A student raised concern about our stress on peshat in Kohelet, essentially arguing that the primary message of much of Kohelet is not important; we should be searching for deeper meaning to come closer to God.



1. Of course there is a lot more depth in Kohelet (and every Sefer in Tanakh) than the peshat. To stop only there (even though that alone is a formidable goal) is a great mistake, given the infinite levels of interpretation.


2. To say that there are passages in Tanakh whose peshat is not relevant is religiously incorrect. Mefarshimbegin with the peshat, and then probe further. Those who use the text as a springboard for their own ideas do not (or at least should not) claim this is Kohelet's intent; in which case we still are obligated to understand (to the best of our ability) what Kohelet did mean.

A great illustration of this principle, cited in the second week of shiur, is Malbim's introduction to Shir HaShirim. Even there, where the peshat is not necessarily equivalent to the literal meaning, we must understand the primary meaning of the text. This is how we come closer to the word of God.


Some yeshivot do not give adequate attention to Tanakh. This educational policy sends the terribly misguided message that Tanakh is not central to Judaism.[24] Some yeshivot reduce Tanakh to little more than a springboard to ideas that the teachers want to say anyway. This educational policy sends the terribly misguided message that Tanakh has no real value in its own right. It leaves all interpretive powers in the hands of the educators, rather than in the hands of the prophetically inspired authors of Tanakh. Of course we want to inspire personal life discussions, but it is vital not to lose the text component as our ultimate guide.

In this essay, we have focused on a third category, i.e., yeshivot and students that do take Tanakh learning seriously. Tanakh is comprised of intellectually stimulating teachings that simultaneously transform our souls. I proactively address the foregoing methodological principles precisely because they often are unclear in most students' minds-even after twelve years of Yeshiva Day School education and often an additional year or more in a yeshiva in Israel (these principles were just as unclear to me when I entered Yeshiva College). The eight representative questions presented above reflect hundreds of conversations I have had with students in an attempt to clarify the central axioms of religious Tanakh learning. It is hoped that we will continue to improve our educational system so that an increasing number of students appreciate the scintillating and dynamic system of learning advanced by our greatest interpreters. In this way, we will join the millennia-old living discussion with our predecessors as we too enter God's palace through the living, fiery words of Tanakh.



[1] See especially R. Shalom Carmy, "A Room with a View, but a Room of Our Own," in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), pp. 1-38; R. Shalom Carmy, "To Get the Better of Words: An Apology for Yir'at Shamayim in Academic Jewish Studies," Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990), pp. 7-24; Uriel Simon, "The Religious Significance of the Peshat," Tradition 23:2 (Winter 1988), pp. 41-63.


[2] By His Light: Character & Values in the Service of God, based on addresses by R. Aharon Lichtenstein, adapted by R. Reuven Ziegler (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV, 2003), p. 195.


[3] Introduction to Exploring the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, ed. R. Marc D. Angel (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1997), p. xvi; R. Marc D. Angel, Loving Truth and Peace: The Grand Religious Worldview of Rabbi Benzion Uziel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1999), pp. 69-70.


[4] See Hayyim Angel, "The Paradox of Parshanut: Are our Eyes on the Text, or on the Commentators, Review Essay of Pirkei Nehama: Nehama Leibowitz Memorial Volume," Tradition 38:4 (Winter 2004), pp. 112-128. Reprinted (with minor modifications) in Hayyim Angel,Through an Opaque Lens (New York: Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2006), pp. 56-76.


[5] Surveys of traditional understandings of the term "peshat" can be found in R. Menahem M. Kasher, Torah Shelemah, vol. 17 (1956), pp. 286-312; David Weiss-Halivni, Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis (New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 52-88; Moshe Ahrend, "Towards a Definition of the Term, ‘Peshuto Shel Mikra,'" (Hebrew), in Ha-Mikra be-Re'i Mefarshav: Sara Kamin Memorial Volume, ed. Sara Japhet (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1994), pp. 237-261.


[6] Cf. Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century Lithuania), in his introduction to his Ha'amek Davar commentary to the Torah: "As it is impossible for a scientist to feel confident that he has uncovered all the secrets of nature...so too it is impossible for one who investigates the nature of Torah that he has understood every facet. Similarly, he cannot prove that he has determined the truth of the Torah. Nevertheless, we are obligated to do what we can."


[7] For criticism of those who blur these boundaries, see, e.g., R. Jonathan Sacks, One People? Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity(London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1993), pp. 92-100; Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides' Thirteen Principles Reappraised (Oxford: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004), pp. 139-146.


[8] It is important to note that while later rabbinic commentators generally defer to the halakhic rulings of the Talmud, that principle is not universally adopted, and much scholarship has been dedicated to that subject. See recently, e.g., Marc B. Shapiro, "Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition," in his Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 2008), pp. 95-150. Shapiro documents many examples where Rambam deviated from talmudic halakhic rulings (or simply ignored them) when he believed them to be responses to superstitions. Given the general reservations post-talmudic commentators have in disregarding talmudic rulings, Shapiro concludes that Rambam was "unprecedented and courageous" in taking those positions. His conclusion highlights how unusual Rambam's stance was among rabbinic commentators. While fascinating and important in its own right, this topic takes us well beyond our point of discussion.


[9] See e.g., R. Marc D. Angel, "Authority and Dissent: A Discussion of Boundaries," Tradition 25:2 (Winter 1990), pp. 18-27; R. Hayyim David Halevi, Aseh Lekha Rav, vol. 5, #49 (pp. 304-307); R. Chaim Eisen, "Maharal's Be'er ha-Golah and His Revolution in Aggadic Scholarship-in Their Context and on His terms," Hakirah 4 (Winter 2007), pp. 137-194; R. Michael Rosensweig, "Elu va-Elu Divre Elokim Hayyim: Halakhic Pluralism and Theories of Controversy," Tradition26:3 (Spring 1992), pp. 4-23; Marc Saperstein, Decoding the Rabbis: A Thirteenth-Century Commentary on the Aggadah (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 1-20.


[10] Abarbanel is playing off of Eruvin 53a.


[11] Translation in Eric Lawee, Isaac Abarbanel's Stance Toward Tradition: Defense Dissent, and Dialogue (NY: SUNY Press, 2001), p. 63.


[12] In his introduction to Pirkei Avot (Shemonah Perakim), Rambam writes, "Know that the things about which we shall speak in these chapters and in what will come in the commentary are not matters invented on my own...They are matters gathered from the discourse of the Sages in the Midrash, the Talmud, and other compositions of theirs, as well as from the discourse of both the ancient and modern philosophers and from the compositions of many men. Hear the truth from whoever says it...We hereby acknowledge this and shall not indicate that ‘so and so said' and ‘so and so said', since that would be useless prolixity. Moreover, the name of such an individual might make the passage offensive to someone without experience and make him think it has an evil inner meaning of which he is not aware." Translation in Ethical Writings of Maimonides, Raymond Weiss & Charles Butterworth (New York: Dover, 1983), p. 60.


[13] See, for example, Ephraim E. Urbach, "The Pursuit of Truth as a Religious Obligation" (Hebrew), in ha-Mikra va-Anahnu, ed. Uriel Simon (Ramat-Gan: Institute for Judaism and Thought in our Time, 1979), pp. 13-27; Uriel Simon, "The Pursuit of Truth that is Required for Fear of God and Love of Torah" (Hebrew), ibid., pp. 28-41;Marvin Fox, "Judaism, Secularism, and Textual Interpretation," inModern Jewish Ethics: Theory and Practice, ed. Marvin Fox (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1975), pp. 3-26.


[14] Iggeret ha-Vikuah, p. 3 (translation of Raphael Jospe, Jewish Philosophy: Foundations and Extensions, vol. 1 [Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc., 2008], p. xiv).


[15] R. Norman Lamm, Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought (New York: KTAV, 1971), pp. 124-125.


[16] Hitgalut ha-Sodot ve-Hofa'at ha-Me'orot, ed. Abraham S. Halkin (Jerusalem: Mekitzei Nirdamim, 1964), pp. 493-495. It is worth noting a dramatic talmudic story on this subject. In Haggigah15b, God Himself initially refused to quote R. Meir in the heavenly court since R. Meir continued to learn from his teacher Elisha ben Avuyah though the latter had become a heretic. However, Rabbah instantly rejected God's policy, stressing that R. Meir carefully sifted out the valuable teachings from the "peel." Consequently, God reversed His policy and began quoting "His son" R. Meir in the heavenly court.


[17] See Hayyim Angel, ""Learning Faith from the Text, or Text from Faith: The Challenges of Teaching (and Learning) the Avraham Narratives and Commentary," in Wisdom from All My Teachers: Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education, Jeffrey Saks & Susan Handelman eds. (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2003), pp. 192-212. Reprinted (with minor modifications) in Hayyim Angel,Through an Opaque Lens (New York: Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2006), pp. 127-154.


[18] For a discussion of some broader implications of the use of ancient Near Eastern sources in Orthodox biblical scholarship, see Barry L. Eichler, "Study of Bible in Light of Our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East," in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, ed. Shalom Carmy (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1996), pp. 81-100.


[19] "The Jews of Eastern Europe used to tell of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Haphetz Hayyim, that he would occasionally ask a small boy to tell him of Judaism. When Rabbi Kagan was asked what could he possibly hope to learn from a child the saint replied that every Jew has his own particular portion in God's Torah and that it may well be that the little boy has been entrusted with a tiny portion of truth denied to the greatest of scholars." In Louis Jacobs,Faith (NY: Basic Books, 1968), p. 187.


[20] On this subject in general, see Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on the "Decline of the Generations" and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996); R. Norman Lamm, Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1990), pp. 86-103.


[21] See, e.g., Dov Zlotnick, "On the Origins and History of the Saying of ‘The Dwarf and the Giant'" (Hebrew), Sinai 77 (1975), pp. 184-189; Jacob Elbaum, "More on the Image of the Dwarf and the Giant" (Hebrew), Sinai 77 (1975), p. 287; Shnayer Z. Leiman, "From the Pages of Tradition: Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants," Tradition27:3 (Spring 1993), pp. 90-94.


[22] See, e.g., Encyclopedia Talmudit, s.v. halakhah be-batrai (the law follows the later authorities).


[23] Cf. R. Hayyim of Volozhin's comments to Mishnah Avot 1:4 (in his Ru'ah Hayyim): "A disciple is forbidden to accept his rabbi's teachings if he has any questions about them...We have been allowed to wrestle and struggle with their words, explain our objections, and taught not to respect any person but love only the truth." Simultaneously, R. Hayyim stresses that the disciple must at all times have proper reverence for his teacher: "He should beware of speaking arrogantly and haughtily if he wishes to object, and of viewing himself as an equal to his teacher or to the author of the book he is contesting. He should know that he may have misunderstood, and will therefore be extremely humble." Translation in Avi Sagi, The Open Canon: on the Meaning of Halakhic Discourse, translated by Batya Stein (New York: Continuum, 2007), pp.139-140.


[24] For a recent analysis of why this has been so, see Frederick E. Greenspahn, "Jewish Ambivalence towards the Bible," Hebrew Studies48 (2007), pp. 7-21.