05 November 2009

More on Meiri

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I attended an AJWS event where Professor Moshe Halbertal spoke to past attendees of their Rabbinical Student Delegation trips (of which I was one, having gone to El Salvador), wherein, although he spoke about Rabbi Menachem Meiri,* he nicely framed the larger discussion. Professor Halbertal wrote an article on the aforementioned Meiri several years back that is pretty well-regarded on the topic.
What isn't as well-known is that Rabbi Aryeh Klapper gave a lecture (“Paskening Like the Meiri: Reflections on Jewish Attitudes Toward Gentiles and Halakhic Integrity”) which I attended a few years ago (although I re-listened to here and here). Although I found many ideas interesting in the lecture, I'm going to transcribe several interesting excerpts.
The first is on the interest in the Meiri:
In the draft of an article I am trying to write about this,** I think the fun paragraph I wrote about this was:
The mere existence of the Meiri has been a source of comfort for Orthodox Jews with universalistic tendencies. The reason that one wants to pasken like the Meiri is because of his unique position about Jewish-Gentile relations that appeal to those of us who have discomfort with laws that make sharp distinctions as to the obligations one has toward Gentiles as opposed to Jews and particularly those laws that seem to imply that basic standards of ethics are limited within the Jewish community.
A very fascinating section was where he discussed the importance of Meiri's writings and how they were attempted to be suppressed:
One is I want to preserve the uniqueness of Judaism, so if I say that all that you need to be a good person is x, then what’s special about Judaism? Secondly, one has the sense that somehow that being part of a community means that you relate to members of the community differently than you relate to non-members of the community. So then there should be some way that family members see themselves as obligated differently to each other, they’re should be some difference.
Now the Meiri offering a way possibly to level all of those distinctions, therefore, was seen as, both because he is seen as diminishing the uniqueness of Judaism and diminishing the unique bonds of Jews to each other was seen as very threatening. And because of this, a whole series of objections were raised. A stark way of framing this – and I’m going to quote this article again where I said
Meiri’s evident willingness to subject halakhah to moral critique and Meiri’s position to say not just "I think this is the halakhah", but I think if you don’t think this is the halakhah, then you’re doing something very wrong. And not just technically wrong, but morally wrong, because there is no justification for treating people like this. So Meiri’s evident willingness to subject halakhah to moral critique raised alarm among traditionalists. As a result, various legends and methodological positions have grown up with the purpose of limiting Meiri’s halakhic and hashkafic impact. These include the claim that Meiri’s works were unknown in halakhic tradition before the 20th century, that his work was published by the memorized transmission of unique manuscripts in the Vatican library, and, therefore, the Jesuits had infiltrated pro-Gentile glosses into the text.
When I was in yeshivah, there was, in fact, a very elaborate story about this: that Meiri was unknown to many for many years. One man who had a photographic memory was allowed into the Vatican library one day a year; he would read the Meiri and come back and write it down very quickly. That’s how the Meiri was published and the Meiri was unknown before this. Now one has to be suspicious because isn’t it funny that a work which exists only in the Vatican library happens to have these pro-Gentile glosses.
All very nice but regrettably not true. Not true at all. If you look at the Harvard Library catalog, you’ll see that the Meiri is published as early as 1830….
Another interesting quote:
The fundamental claim that Halbertal makes is that Meiri thinks that there is no avodah zarah in Christianity and, therefore, you can be engaged with their worship – all those prohibitions are moot. And Rabbi Henkin claims no, you can’t do that. Halbertal makes this claim based on this terminological precision. Here, I have to make a reference to quote Rabbi Saul Berman, who taught me the notion of Predictive Principles in Halakhah. If I want to set up the claim that A always goes with B, I have to know in advance whether a certain object is going to be B or not. So Professor Halbertal has these three categories, which are Civil Discrimination, Indirect Contact with Idolatry, and Social Contact. And there are 60-70 cases. So I had my students – what I did was, instead of giving them Professor Halbertal’s neat categorizations, I gave them all these cases in the order in the Talmud, and I said “Take every case and put it in either category A, B, or C.” And it turns out that the categories are not good predictive principles. On the whole, except for a few cases, the students distributed randomly as to whether these laws fell into category A, B, or C. So, it’s difficult to test Professor’s Halbertal’s thesis on a broad level.
Whenever Meiri makes these radical claims, he only makes them by implication. For example, he says here עובדי אלילים, one is not obligated to save them because they have no דת. This is the law regarding paternity of people who have no דת. When he makes the non-radical claims, he says "but, with regard to those who have דת...,". When he makes the radical claims, he leaves out the "but". He just does the implication. Pretty consistent. So you have to wonder: does this mean that Meiri really believes these things but can't get away with it or he's just seeding the tradition and hoping someone will come along and pasken like it? Is he cluing you in that this is really just apologetic and don't believe any of the other places he said it, either? I don't know. It's tough to imagine that he says it in so many times and yet, at the same time, there is a pattern - to me, and I have to show you all of the cases - that the more radical he gets halakhically, the less likely it is for him to spell out the implication.
One last one:
...Rabbi Henkin's really compelling argument is there's some silence - there's so many places that Meiri has the opportunity to just tell us "Christians are not עובדי עבודה זרה." He says the Sefardic rabbis write that Muslims are not עובדי עבודה זרה. He never says it about Christians. He has so many opportunities, it's suspicious.
* Meiri had previously been discussed on my blog here.
** The paper on which he was working was presented as "The Meiri’s Halakhah about Christians and Christianity: A Response to Halbertal" at the Association for Jewish Studies 39th Annual Conference in December 2007.

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