Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Ramban, the Vikuach and Daas Torah

Krum as a bagel
One of the most storied events of medieval Jewish history is the Ramban's theological debate with Pablo Christiani. The Ramban famously won the debate and was promptly forced to flee Spain. The dispute is recorded in the Vikuach or "Disputation." In it, the Ramban makes a rather bold statement regarding the authoritativeness of Aggadic statments of Chazal:
We have three types of books. The first is the Bible and everyone believes in it with perfect faith. The second is called Talmud and it is a commentary on the mitzvos of the Torah. The Bible has 613 commandments and there is not one which is not explained in the Talmud. We believe in it concerning the explanations of the mitzvos. There is a third type of book which is called medrash i.e., sermons. It is comparable to a preacher getting up and giving a sermon and some listening liked it and recorded it. Concerning medrash--it is fine if one wishes to believe them. However there is no loss if one doesn't want to believe them.
This statement was the subject of a debate on the Avodah list. Someone asserted (let's call him Rabbi Charedi) that there are no instances of Rishonim rejecting a non-halakhic biblical interpretation of Chazal (the assertion is somewhat more nuanced than that, but that's the basic gist). The above quoted statement was cited as proof that it is legitimate to reject Aggadic statements of Chazal. I found R' Charedi's response to this source rather shocking:
As far as my "pshat" in the Ramban in the vikuach, most people understand the Ramban's words in the context of his debate with Pablo Christiani (see Shevel offen ort). He was merely being docheh him b'kash because he knew Pablo could never fathom the profound meaning of Chazal in the aggados and would only use them as a "kardum lachtzov bo" in the debate. Anyone who learns the Ramban knows the respect the he has for aggados Chazal and to think otherwise is to ignore the Ramban in countless places.
So according to this view, the Ramban was lying. Putting aside the question of whether one is allowed to lie about the Torah in order to win a debate (and in any event, what's so great about the Ramban's victory if he had to lie to acheive it?), I think R' Caredi's view reflects a fundamental problem I have with a certain type of Charedi mindset. According to this way of thinking, the Ramban's respect for Chazal must mean that he believes in their absolute authoritativeness and any statement indicating anything less must be apologetics. Respect is equated with complete and utter submissiveness. A similiar midset animates the concept of Daas Torah. It's not enough to respect Gedolim and hold them in high esteem, but one must accept everything they say onanytopic, and anything less is an indication of a lack of appropriate emunas chachamim.

R' Charedi cannot seem to fathom that the Ramban both respected Aggada yet at the same time felt free to reject it when appropriate. And a review of the Ramban al HaTorah shows this to be the case: the Ramban frequently rejects pshatim based on maamarei Chazal in favor of his own interpretations yet only where the Ramban finds Chazal's pshat to be problematic and where there is a strong basis to interpret the pasuk differently. A excellent discussion of the Ramban's view of Agadda by Prof. Marvin Fox was post by Gil here. The key quote:
What makes this entire discussion puzzling is the fact that anyone who would take the trouble even to read casually in Nahmanides' work, particularly, as Septimus points out, his commentary on the Torah, would see immediately how strange it is to assert as a truth beyond all question that his actual view was that we are obligated to believe all aggadot. There is hardly a page in that commentary where Ramban does not reject openly a midrash or a talmudic aggadah... Respect and appreciation do not imply that one is obligated to abandon all independent judgement. The interpreters who find it difficult to believe that Nahmanides could have meant what he said in his report of the disputation have not paid close enough attention to his statement in its context. Ramban is saying that we do not have to believe in the truth or correctness of any given midrash. This does not mean that he approaches the whole of rabbinic aggadah with an initial attitude of disbelief, irreverence or outright rejection, but that we are permitted, even mandated, to exercise our intelligence and our learning in order to determine when to accept and when to reject a particular midrash.
For a good collection of sources regarding the authoritativeness of Aggada, see the R' Daniel Eidensohn's post here.

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