Thursday, July 07, 2005

Our three tiers

How are the seminal figures of the past viewed in large segments of contemporary Orthodoxy?

In the contemporary historiography there are three basic tiers. There are 1) the Biblical figures, 2) the chachmei ha-gemara and 3) everyone who came since.

Although ostensibly the Biblical figures are at the top in this scheme in the sense that they are seen larger than life in ways that no one since could ever be, they are not viewed by contemporaries through their own lens, but only through the lens of Chazal. For example, the fact that its muchrach in Tanakh that David Hamelekh was a Bronze Age warrior-king (as well as the "sweet singer of Israel" 2 Samuel 23:1) is completely overlooked in favor of Chazal's placing David into context as a great Torah scholar and posek.

For all intents and purposes Chazal are the infallible ones in this three-tiered view, whereas that's not really the case with anyone since, no matter how much lip service is paid to the idea of rishonim, aharonim etc. When push comes to shove the Rambam will be roundly ignored, the Ibn Ezra will be demoted. A possible exception, it seems, is Rashi who may well actually be accorded the veneration and status of Chazal.

But here's the catch: all of the above, the whole hierarchy, is only viewed through a contemporary lens and projected back onto the past. So while Chazal may in fact occupy the position at the top of the heap so that they are above the kind of reevaluation of, say, the Rambam -- Chazal will still only be viewed to be consistent with contemporary chareidi hashkafah, not unlike how Chazal themselves viewed the Biblical figures (or at least portrayed them) as similar to themselves. An example would be the tanna Hillel's loose approach to conversion to Judaism, which certainly does not meet halakhic standards as it would evolve. But in a contemporary reading, the plain words of the Gemara are disregarded in favor of an insistence that Hillel obviously converted people in accordance with our own hilkhos gerus.

It may not make for the very latest in modern historiography, but it is fine pedagogy for its purposes, and surely isn't inconsistent with the approach of the Gemara.

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