Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Lomdus Reexamined

Prof. Marc Shapiro's new book, Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters, is quite formidable. Like Shapiro's previous two books, it is extremely well researched and contains expansive citations for all of its claims. If anything, this book is better defended through detailed examples than either of the previous books. That is because the book is largely one that asserts only a few claims and then offers proofs and examples at great length.

Click here to read moreThe book is generally divided into three sections. The first and largest is an essay dedicated to determining the proper approach for academics to take in understanding the Rambam's Mishneh Torah. Essentially, this section is an extended argument against the approach of "lomdus" that is so prevalent in yeshivas, with some encouragement to academics to look in traditional commentaries as part of their comprehensive approach to understanding the Rambam.

Instead of "lomdus", Shapiro argues, we need to pay careful attention to manuscripts and the Rambam's own words in his responsa and elsewhere. We must also accept that sometimes the Rambam made mistakes, and Shapiro gives a long list of such instances. However, Shapiro cautions that this should not be overdone: "While even academic scholars should be hesitant to assume that Maimonides erred, there are times -- in particular when it is a question of Maimonides overlooking a source -- that this option must remain open" (p. 55).

Sometimes the Rambam was imprecise in his language, and Shapiro gives examples. In general, Shapiro counsels academics to take note of traditional commentaries but to utilize textual, historical and non-hagiographic approaches as well. The last section of this essay deals with the Rambam and Kabbalah, and argues that the Rambam did not utilize the Zohar.

The second part of the book is an essay about the Rambam's view on halakhah and superstition. After describing Rambam's negative attitude towards non-rational ideas, Shapiro offers a long list of examples where the Rambam rejected or changed a talmudic ruling based on this attitude of his.

The final section is a collection of Hebrew letters from prominent scholars that support Shapiro's general approach to interpreting the Rambam.

Overall, I found the book to be well argued and extremely uncomfortable to me as a yeshiva product. Shapiro does a very good job at making his argument that both the traditional and academic approaches towards understanding the Mishneh Torah require revision. While he is not the first to make this point (and, indeed, quotes others such as R. Yechiel Ya'akov Weinberg who voiced similar ideas), Shapiro makes a very comprehensive case for his view.

(see also this post: link)

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