Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Which scholars are frum? Who wants to know and why.

In the comments section of Gil's review of Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible, "The Jewish Da Vinci Code, some commenters were hostile to the idea that different voices or threads or sources or whateveryouwannacallit can as a point of fact be detected in the תורה, whether or not one lends credence to some or all of the assumptions of source criticism of the Torah (J, E, P, D + R in its most well known form). Others, including myself, believe that these voices etc. can be found.

Professor Lawrence Kaplan mentioned "frum Jewish scholars associated with the Orthodox community" in Israel who espouse a critical reading of the Torah.

To which commenter Andy asked "prof kaplan- I don't suppose it matters much, but how is a layman like me supposed to know if a scholar is frum or not? Maybe it should be posted on their institution's website along with their other info."

This is a strange commented to be directed at a leading Judaic studies scholar.

It seems to me that this is an archetypal negation of the Rambam's dictum to accept the truth from whomever speaks it, שמע האמת ממי שאמרה (from the introduction to שמונה פרקים. I've been around enough to know that not everyone agrees with this dictum, preferring to receive truth (and perhaps other things) from sources that pass some sort of test.

Still, its an odd comment to direct at someone whose work obviously depends on the sentiment which drove the Rambam to glean truth where it is found.

Someone pointed out to me that this comment is vaguely reminiscent of another kind of ideologically driven intellectual isolationism, notably the German movement called Deutsche Physik which rejected advances in physics as "Jewish science" and was directed particularly at the work of Albert Einstein. Proponents worried how to determine the Jewishness of the authors of articles on physics.

Getting back to the Rambam it must be noted that in explaining that his approach was to שמע האמת ממי שאמרה he didn't cite his sources, precisely so that מי שאין לו חך, those without experience*, would consider those ideas rather than dismissing them because of who said them, thinking that there must be some rotten inner meaning to it which they can't discern. While this violates the modern need to cite sources, as well as the ancient and modern need to מביא גאולה לעולם, at least it causes people to become familiar with things that are true and, I suppose, a case can be made that this is the lesser evil.

*This neat translation courtesy of Ethical Writings of Maimonides, ed. Raymond L. Weiss and Charles E. Butterworth. The translation came to my attention in a footnote in Marc Shapiro's Saul Lieberman & the Orthodox.

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