Monday, August 20, 2007

Who Is The Mishna For?

I would like to share some thoughts I have had while preparing the first chapter of Mesekhet Pesachim for the class I was supposed to teach this year.

General Observations

The general topic of the first three mishnayot of Mesekhet Pesachim is bedikat chametz, searching for chametz. Let us consider the specific issues that are dealt with in each mishna:

First Mishna

1) When, 2) With what tool, 3) What places require bedika

4) Bedika of a wine cellar: a) kind of cellar, b) extent of bedika

Second Mishna

5) That we are not concerned that a weasel dragged chametz from a non-baduk place to a baduk place

Third Mishna

6) The requirement of Bedika beyond the time of biur

7) How to handle the chametz that remains after bedika

The Problem

When a student opens up to the first page of Mesekhet Pesachim he is confronted with a host of issues. I will try to present some of the issues he might grapple with - though perhaps never actually put into words. 1) This mesecheta begins with the topic of bedikat chametz. Why does Mesekhet Pesachim begin with this topic? 2) The Torah says nothing about doing bedika - why, then, is bedikat chametz required at all? 3) Are there books that I should have read before this Mesekhta? 4) How does bedika fit into the general system of Pesach? 5) Most of the topics (1-3 and 5-7) discussed in the first three mishnayot are very general principles of bedika or at least easily lend themselves to generalization; only one of them (4) seems to delve into a very specific issue. Is the goal of the mishna to teach general principles or deal with specific problematic cases? 6) Who is the Mishna's intended reader?

The Mishna does not provide us with any way of answering the above mentioned questions. As a book, the Mishna seems greatly lacking. How can this be? This question would not be as bothersome if we were talking about some other book; we would simply say that it is a poorly written book. However, the Mishna is considered the seminal work of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh! How could such a book be so lacking?

The Solution

The problem is with our assumption. The mishna is not a regular book. It was never meant as a complete presentation of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. Its purpose was to save Torah Sh'ba'al Peh from being forgotten. R' Yehuda HaNasi achieved this by providing the ba'alei mesora with a tool, not by writing a complete presentation. We should not expect comprehensiveness from such a book just as we would not expect comprehensiveness from a great professor's class notes. Let me explain:

Imagine a great professor - let us say, the greatest of his generation - of physics, mathematics, psychology, etc., faced with the following imaginary (though possible) scenario. After hundreds of years of professors teaching the subject to countless numbers of students the day comes - for whatever reason - that many students lose interest. Lecture halls that were once filled to capacity with hopeful graduate students lie mostly unused. Semesters pass without enough students to offer many of the graduate level classes. The would-be professors can not get the experience needed to become master-teachers. Even some elements of the field face the real possibility of being forgotten or misunderstood without the infusion of young talented minds.

This professor observes this dreadful situation and sets himself about the task of saving his beloved discipline from oblivion. He is fortunate because he still has colleagues who are masters of his field. What he decides his colleagues need are lecture notes covering every area of his field. With these notes his colleagues will have a resource with which they can guide their lectures, but more importantly they will have a way of checking that they have not omitted, in these lectures, any element necessary for a complete knowledge of their field.

As for sources, the great professor would use his own notes to form his compilation but would also make use of other master teachers' notes. If he possessed a copy of his own teacher's notes he would most likely make extensive use of them in the formulation of his compilation. The great professor would also be sure to include the major debates current in his field.

Of course, the great professor's compilation would find its main use in the hands of his colleague professors. Being a compilation of notes they are sketchy and incomplete by design - their intention being a guide for professors (this, of course, does not mean that the students would not get a copy, or at least have access to a copy). If a professor were to merely dictate these notes to a student - or if the students were to simply read the notes - very little would be understood. Teacher's notes serve as a guide for instruction not as the instruction itself. The job of teaching would still be in the hands of the professor.

This is, in effect, exactly what R' Yehuda HaNasi did. In another post I will complete this comparison using selections from Rambam's introduction to the Mishne Torah.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Insight
Part II

Finally, here is the rest of "the insight".

I would like to clarify two terms before I begin.

1) Demonstration is the name of the art of true reasoning (which includes deduction and induction).

2) Dialectic, or argumentation, is the art of reasoning from reputable opinions.

Places For Dialecticians

Why are the schemes used in argumentation called places more than any other thinking skills that one commits to memory? Think of the difference between the shopping list and the characteristics of dogs. The shopping list is unordered by nature and must artificially be given an order through the 'place' technique. The characteristics of dogs are naturally ordered - as the mind grasps the abstract nature of the dog each characteristic finds its place in the mind and is, consequently, remembered.

The Topics is concerned with reasoning from "reputable opinions". One is not naturally investigating an object of thought - one is arguing the merits of reputable opinions. By and large, those engaged in argumentation are not 'natural thinkers'. Thought is still artificial - the best that the arguer can hope for is to train himself to follow proper technique as given by a master (Aristotle, Ralbag or Ramchal) - a well ordered shopping list of argumentation, if you will.

In other words, the dialectician - not being a 'natural thinker' is in need of guidance. The purpose of the topoi and m'komot is to provide that guidance. The master provides his student with a topology of mind, a map, to guide him along the path to truth.

Topics and M'komot

In this post, I wrote what my first thoughts were after the scholar told me that makom is the translation of topos:

Ralbag's m'komot were topoi - argumentative schemes enabling the reader (who is in a sense a dialectician, building his arguments out of authoritative statements) to construe an argument for the conclusion that a specific mitzvah or shoresh can be placed on (or emerge from) a specific text.

I believe this was in essence true though lacking. What was I missing? The fundamental role of m'komot in the development of a talmid being guided by his Rav - in this case the Ralbag. Just as the topoi were the schemes by which Aristotle, as expert reasoner, guided his students to become better reasoners, so too, the m'komot are an expression of the chesed of the Ralbag, as master m'pharaish, to his talmidim guiding them through the process of peirush.


Please forgive me if I go back and make some changes. I have been a bit harried as of late which is not the best state to engage in the reflection necessary to write a good post. However, I did want to get this post up already. As usual, all critiques are welcome and greatly appreciated.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ruach HaChein Chapter IV

Chapter IV of my Ruach HaChein translation is now up:

Chapter IV

I have also added titles to each chapter. Please, as usual, let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Insight
Part I

So what was the new insight into the nature of the m'komot as well as memory and learning that Rabbi Sacks helped me see? Due to the length of this piece I will present it in two separate posts - additionally, I believe each part is worth considering on its own (I hope to hear the results of your consideration in the comments - thank you very much).

The Question

First I will restate the question. Why does the Ralbag call his methods m'komot? When the scholar told me that he is just using the Hebrew translation of the appropriate Aristotelian term, topica/topoi I should have asked the same question on Aristotle: why does Aristotle call an "argumentative scheme which enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion" a topic? The following is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The word ‘topos’ (place, location) most probably is derived from an ancient method of memorizing a great number of items on a list by associating them with successive places, say the houses along a street one is acquainted with. By recalling the houses along the street we can also remember the associated items...

Aristotle himself compares his topics with this memory technique:

For just as in a person with a trained memory, a memory of things themselves is immediately caused by the mere mention of their 'places', so these habits too will make a man readier in reasoning, because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number. (163b:28-31 trans. W.A. Pickard-Cambridge)

What exactly is the analogy? Learning different schemes of argumentation certainly will improve one's ability to argue well, making him "readier in reasoning". But how is this at all similar to the 'place' technique? I believe the key is the following phrase: "because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number." However, let us first consider why 'places' are useful to memory.

Places and Memories

First, one does not just use any 'places'. One uses a familiar place and preferably a place that can easily be associated with what one needs to remember. For example one might imagine the different places within one's cupboard and refrigerator to memorize a shopping list or the houses on one's block to remember the phone numbers of each family in each respective house (take a look at this excellent article to see how this method can be extended).

Additionally, and more importantly, the 'place' technique works because it is in line with the natural function of our imagination/psyche. Thought progresses from sensory experience of particulars to a general mental image. From that general mental image the intellectual faculty abstracts out the true universal nature that was embodied in the in the original sensory experience. For example, one sees, hears, feels and feels things about a dog; a general mental representation of the dog is formed which combines the different sensory experiences; after many such experiences the mental representation becomes more refined; the mind abstracts a universal formula of 'dog' out of the refined mental representation. These are the steps, in brief:

1) sense;

2) represent;

3) refine;

4) abstract.

Of course, every step must be checked by all the previous steps; i.e. one must make sure that their formula for 'dog' does not equally describe people.

As one progresses along the path of abstraction one's memory of particulars improves. In other words, at first it is difficult to remember all of the different kinds of dogs, the anatomy of dogs, all the varied behaviors of dogs, etc.; but, the more I study dogs the simpler it gets to remember all of the varied details. What once seemed like a mess of random details suddenly gains coherence, now that my "mind's eye" has 'dog glasses'. Another way of saying this is: everything has found it place. Our memories do not work well with chaos, when our thoughts become "classified", "each under its number" what was once difficult to remember becomes simple.

The purpose of Aristotle's topics is to give one familiarity with general schemes of reasoning to improve one's skill to, as he writes in the beginning of the Topics, "reason from reputable opinions about any subject presented to us, and also... when putting forward an argument, avoid saying anything contrary to it" better known as dialectic or argumentation. The more one familiarizes oneself with these topics - the more each one falls into its mental 'place' - the greater one's facility at argumentation.

In my next post I will discuss: 1) why these dialectical schemes should be called places more than any other thinking skill and 2) what this teaches us about Ralbag's Makomot.