Commemorating the Twentieth Yahrtzeit of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l
Rav Soloveitchik and Disputed Traditions
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik applied his Brisker approach to explain and defend a famously outrageous statement by the Rambam that is so wrong, it must be right. In three separate places, Rambam states that Sinaitic traditions are never disputed among the Sages.1 Yet, in a brilliant responsum,2 R. Yair Chaim Bachrach compiles a comprehensive list of counterproofs, passages from rabbinic literature in which Sinaitic traditions are clearly disputed. How could the Rambam have overlooked so many examples? A thinker as great as he could not have made such a basic mistake, explicit in the very work on which he was writing a commentary. In commemoration of R. Soloveitchik’s twentieth yahrtzeit, I offer (my understanding of) his approach in a groundbreaking and little known essay.
Rambam’s great defender was R. Tzvi Hirsch (Maharatz) Chajes. In his Toras Ha-Nevi’im,3 he resolves all the Chavos Yair‘s challenges with four principles:
- Rambam meant that no Sage would argue directly with a tradition. If his disputant claimed to have a Sinaitic tradition–in a theoretical discussion (kodem ma’aseh–that settled all arguments.
- The Sinaitic tradition was often general, allowing for debate over details. Rambam actually said this explicitly in his commentary to the final Mishnah in Eduyos.
- Similarly, some Sinaitic laws were given to the Sages to apply. For example, the various minimum amounts are Sinaitic traditions but where to apply them–e.g. whether to use the olive-size or date-size minimums for a specific prohition–was intentionally left for the Sages to decide and therefore subject to debate.
- Sometimes there is debate over the status of a law but not the law itself, e.g. whether a prohibition is a Sinaitic tradition or a custom.
R. Soloveitchik4 took an entirely different approach. He carefully distinguished between (the Hebrew translation) of Rambam’s words in the introduction to his Mishnah commentary and fit them into conceptual categories. Rambam discusses two types of Sinaitic traditions: received explanations and received laws. The former provide authoritative interpretations of biblical verses, about which Rambam states there is no debate. The latter are laws without Scriptural anchor, which Rambam claims no one may dispute.
R. Soloveitchik explains that the Rambam was saying two separate things, one dogmatic and one mechanical, corresponding to two principles that underly rabbinic disputes. The first is eilu ve-eilu, these and those are God’s words. This principle allows for multiple valid views on any given subject and therefore debate within legitimacy. You might have thought that a Sinaitic tradition, a direct transmission from the Almighty, could not be disputed. However, we learn in Bava Metzi’a (59b) that eilu ve-eilu allows for multiple views in addition to a revealed opinion. However, this principle has limits. The second principle is acharei rabim le-hatos, following the majority view. In other words, only a debate that is subject to the halakhic decision-making (hakhra’ah) rules, whether by majority or otherwise, can be considered a valid debate.
Rambam was stating that the first type of Sinaitic traditions–received explanations–are not subject to eilu ve-eilu. No one may dispute any such interpretation. Indeed, he states that rejection of such a biblical interpretation is considered heresy.
However, the second type of Sinaitic traditions–received laws–are subject to eilu ve-eilu but not to the decision-making rules. Therefore, they are not inherently subject to valid debate for mechanical reasons, because halakhah has no way to conclude such a discussion. If one rabbi would claim a Sinaitic tradition, another could not say he finds another view convincing. That would be outside the bounds of halakhic decision-making.
However, there are ways of bringing the received tradition into the bounds of decision-making. For example, if rabbis debate the meaning of the tradition, such a discussion falls within the parameters of a legitimate debate. Similarly, if a rabbi disputes a received tradition with an argument that is itself within the bounds of decision-making, he drags the Sinaitic tradition into the debate. If he proposes a derashah, a full-blown halakhic exegesis that is subject to decision-making rules, the received tradition is indirectly dragged into a valid debate.
Received traditions are clearly true, since they were taught to Moshe at Sinai. However, because of the eilu ve-eilu principle, there may be other valid Torah truths. Debate is precluded on those issues when decision-making rules are unavailable. But when the decision-making rules are made to apply, debate may flourish in the Talmudic tradition. And so this outrageous Rambam is defended with the Brisker conceptual approach.