Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Original thinking in Jewish history

In Godol Hador's mammoth post die Wissenschaft des Judentums The Science of Judaism much commenting ensues.

In the discussion the idea was raised that a many (but not all!) Jewish thinkers of long-lasting impact bucked the norms and leadership of their day, only to be vindicated by history. I wrote that:
historically the masses weren't scientists. Rabbis were--that is to say, the educated Jews were, and educated Jews were rabbis. It's a bit circular.

In fact, the historical example feeds the daas Torah view. It is 100% true that historically Jewish leaders and intellectuals tended to be talmidei chachamim. But this isn't because talmidei chachamim inherently know astronomy or politics better than those who aren't TCs, but because only those who were educated would come to excel in those fields. And a traditional Jewish education was impossible without heavy duty immersion in Torah. That's why you have all those Jewish polymaths who excelled in Torah and Talmud and whatever else they did, and it has nothing to do with daas Torah or hafoch ba hafoch ba.

All that said, a great deal of what is credited to Jews were products of Jews who thought outside the box, outside the mainstream and in many cases who clashed outright with the leadership who didn't appreciate original thinking. The Rambam is a classic example, but so is the father of modern Jewish historiography, Azaryah de' Rossi*, and others down to the present.
Along those lines I wonder if traditional Judaism is the incubator for the specific factors which produce such people. Requirements: a set of rigid religious leaders to herd the masses. They'll all be relatively intolerant of those who don't toe the line, but really they're all there to produce the setting for the people who will step out of line and do big things.

Very Maimonidean, very elitist. I don't like elitism. But is it true? Or rather, was it true?

*WRT Azaryah de' Rossi it must be mentioned that his noted antagonist, the Maharal mi-Prague was, of course, an original thinker.

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