Towards the end of my brief stay in yeshiva, I managed to shock my rebbe by admitting that my departure was in order that I might study “ancient history” (O glorious son that can so ‘stonish a rebbe). I remember well his response: they might be able to tell you what Avraham had for breakfast, but only here can you learn what the Torah actually means. I think he might have been further shocked had he known what the academic method really entails, but his views of “the academy” were informed by complete isolation from the secular world, and nourished on an anti-enlightenment attitude that has become as much a part of the Lithuanian Torah establishment as has its reliance on the Mishne Berurah.
Chaim Saiman makes reference to this same attitude in his recent guest post at The Talmud Blog. There, he quotes it a little differently: “in the academy they tell you what Abayye wore while in yeshiva they tell you what he said”. What I found interesting, however, was his suggestion that “you can’t really understand what he said without understanding the world in which he said it, especially if what Abayye “wore” includes the entire social and intellectual world that he lived in.”
Chaim Saiman is Associate Professor of Law at Villanova University, and is currently working on a book with the delicious (if tentative) title, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law. Focusing on legal exegesis, Chaim makes the somber claim in this guest post that a true appreciation of the halakha would have to be diachronic, with attention paid in every instance to the social and intellectual worlds of its many contributors. Understanding a passage in the rabbinic literature without regard for the world of its authors is a futile endeavour and we face our intellectual poverty with every step that we take. Even were we confident of what Abayye, for example, might have intended at the time (notwithstanding, of course, any questions that concern the authorship of any passage that ascribes opinions to him), can we be likewise certain about the intentions of Rashi or the Tosafot, of the Rif, the Rambam, or any of a dozen other Rishonim who quoted the relevant passage and attempted to produce a normative legal practise?
As Chaim admits, any such study is both impossible and undesirable, but we can at least be cognisant of our inability to produce it, and aware of the ramifications of our ignorance to an appreciation of Jewish law. So far as any such appreciation goes, I found that his words resonated with me:
The process of law involves making normative arguments about the present by appeal to sources of authority from the past. While we allow rules of the past to make normative claims on the present, the price they pay for this honor is that they are filtered though the present interpretive assumptions. True, present assumptions can and often do contain contain a healthy dose of historicism, but since law incurs normative demands, the history will always be infused by the normative needs of the now… “History” is simply another form of normative legal argument, and its salience is in part determined by how well it fits into the tradition of interpretation.
I have long been of the opinion that history is itself but a complex and chaotic series of events, the imposition over which of a narrative structure is arbitrary at best and propagandistic at worst. Part of what I find so compelling about the halakhic process is its attempt to make of this history a reasoned and logical code of normative practise, from which there always seems to be more in the way of departure than anything else.