Disingenuousness and Dissent

Rabbi Natan Slifkin writes:

As I have said before, I think it is far more disrespectful to deliberately distort someone’s position than to dispute it.

While I am certainly sympathetic to this view, the existence of counterexamples in the literature of our sages must nevertheless be conceded; here’s a classic instance:

Rif, after recording the laws of the Moredes as stated in the Talmud, proceeds to record this celebrated Geonic ruling:

הדין הוא דינא דגמרא אבל האידנא בבי דינא דמתיבתא הכי דייני במורדת כד אתיא ואמרה לא בעינא ליה להאי גברא ניתיב לי גיטא יהיב לה גיטא לאלתר …1

Rav Zerahiah Ha’Levi suggests that the Geonic institution was not a permanent alteration of the classic laws of Moredes, but merely a Hora’as Sha’ah, due to the particular circumstances of their generation:

ומסתברא לי שהתקנה שתקנו בישיבה לתת גט במורדת זו לאלתר הוראת שעה היתה לפי הצורך ממה שראו בדורם אבל בדורות הבאים בדינא דגמרא דיינינן לה:2

Ramban, in his role as Rif’s defender, firmly rejects this view, insisting on the permanence of the Geonic enactment. He asserts, moreover, that Rav Zerahiah himself really means to simply disagree with the Geonim, but was unwilling to say so candidly due to considerations of “דרך פתוי” and “לשון נקיה”:

ומה שאמר בעל המאור ז”ל … הלא רבינו הגדול ז”ל יודע תקנת הגאונים יותר מכלנו ומדבריו ניכר שלדורות תקנו אבל אין דבריו של בעל המאור ז”ל בכאן אלא פתוי שהוא רוצה לחלוק עליהם ולומר דבדינא דגמרא דיינינן ואמרה בלשון נקיה אבל הם באמת לדורות תקנו ונהגו בה עד ימיו של רבינו ז”ל בחמש מאות שנה שלא זזה תקנה זו מביניהם כמו שידוע אצלם בתשובות שלהם גם כן תמצא זה מפורש בהלכות הראשונות לרב שמעון קיירא ובכל חבורי הגאונים הראשונים גם בדברי האחרונים ז”ל והם ידעו היאך תקנו אבל מי שרוצה להחמיר שלא לכוף בגט כדין הגמרא לא הפסיד ותבא עליו ברכה:3

Update: A follow-up

  1. הלכות רב אלפס כתובות דף כ”ז. בדפי הרי”ף []
  2. המאור הגדול שם []
  3. מלחמות השם שם []

8 thoughts on “Disingenuousness and Dissent”

  1. Anyone who is trying to argue that his position is also legitimate and also traditional and also intellectually sound will not have to grapple with or concede anything, since he’s already conceded it, if my meaning is clear.

  2. Another example of this is the Rambam in the Perush Hamishmah ( Rosh Hashonoh) who cites the statement of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon that Kiddush Hachodesh Al pi Cheshbon is the preffered method Min Hatorah, the institution of kiddush al pi har’iyah was done becuse of the Zedukim. The Rambam states that Rav Saadiah clearly does not believe this, but that he was only saying this as part of his polemic against the Karaites.

    1. A fascinating passage indeed, but we’re specifically considering here the narrow issue of misrepresentation as a (respectful) form of dissent, whereas Rambam is suggesting that Saadia lied as a polemical tactic against the Kairites, not because he had any disagreement with Hazal.


      ואני תמיה מאדם יכחיש הראות ויאמר כי דת היהודים אינה בנויה על ראיית הלבנה אלא על החשבון בלבד והוא מאמין אלו הכתובים כולם

      ואני רואה שהרואה זה אינו מאמינו אבל היתה דעתו בזה המאמר להשיב אחור בעל דינו באי זה צד יזדמן לו בשקר או באמת כיון שלא מצא מציל לנפשו מהכרח הויכוח

      Googling around, I found this, by way of background:

      “…Rejecting the fixed calendar as a heretic innovation, the Karaites held that by law of Scripture the beginning of the months must be determined by the appearance of the new crescent and no other means, and that this had been the practice of ancient Israel at all times. Rabbanite refutation of this extreme assertion found its most outspoken exponent in Saadia Gaon, who went to the opposite extreme in ‘demonstrating’ that the fixed calendar, computation of molad and tekufah, has the force of a Mosaic-Sinaitic law that had been followed at all ages of the past [like some in the CoGs proclaim], while observation of the new crescent was merely a passing episode in the history of the Jews, introduced at the time of the Sadducees to show that it confirmed the correctness of the prescribed calendaric regulation by calculation. Although this contention could easily be refuted by the Karaites as fanciful to the point of ridicule, Saadia’s prestige was so great that his theory was accepted even by leading scholars…..Maimonides [12th century A.D] is one of the few medieval Rabbanite authorities known to have taken issue with Saadia’s and his followers’ contention, and his refutation amounts to unmitigated reproach, indeed to expression of intellectual as well as religious indignation. [Maimonides commented:] ‘I am truly astonished over a personage who rejects clear evidence, asserting that the religion of Israel was based, not on observation of the new moon, but on calculation alone–and yet he [Saadia] affirms the authority of all these (just mentioned) Talmudic passages! I think indeed that he did not believe his own assertions, but he merely wished to repel his [Karaite] adversary by any notion that just occurred to him, be it true or false, when he had found himself unable to escape the force of (his adversary’s) argument.'” (The Code of Maimonides, book II, treatise 8, translated by Solomon Gandz, Yale Judaica Series, Volume XI, pp.lii-liii)


      [Note that this is a Christian website, and the entire thrust of that lengthy page seems to be an attempt to undermine the authenticity of the “Calculated Rabbinic Calendar”.]

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