A new volume of Tradition (available for paid download only) arrived in the mail a few days ago. A memorial volume offered in tribute to Rabbi Dr Walter Wurzburger z”l, it is especially rich and diverse in its contributors and contributions. I will comment, in the space of two or three posts, on three articles that grabbed my attention.
Seizing upon a jailhouse petition from one of the notorious Leopold and Loeb murderers, Rabbi J. David Bleich (“The Problem of Identity in Rashi, the Rambam, and the Tosafists”) launches into a discussion of what many would consider a hopelessly theoretical philosophical issue. By the time he finishes, he convincingly shows that a machlokes Rashi and Tosfos in multiple places in Shas follows and is illuminated by two different explanation of identity, espoused by Aristotle in antiquity, and A. J. Ayer in recent times. (He calls them, respectively, arguments from causality – seeing a nexus between the cause of a phenomenon, and the effect that is already resident in it – and from spatio-temporal contiguity.) Along the way, he turns several other gemaros – as well as chidushim of R Elchonon Wasserman and several representatives of the House of Brisk (none of whom presumably would appreciate being linked to either of the gentleman mentioned in the last sentence) – into one superbly organized sugya. Zeh v’veh gorem , among other things, will never look the same again.
With the exception of brain cells, it is argued that all other body cells die and are regenerated within seven years. On that basis, the famed privileged-genius pair who sought to commit the perfect crime petitioned the court for release after more than seven years had elapsed since the deed was committed. The prisoners, they argued, were not the murderers, having morphed into new beings.
A judge dismissed the argument, citing a common sense understanding of personal identity. While this may be sufficient in a Western court, it won’t make the grade in halacha. Rabbi Bleich lays bare the philosophical underpinnings of the issue, and then takes the reader on a quick tour of Shas and poskim, stopping at all the relevant sites, effortlessly displaying his signature combination of both breadth and deep lomdus.
The last paragraph of the article may say it all:
Aristotle has been paraphrased as declaring “Metaphysics is the most divine of all sciences because it is the least practical.” And, indeed, for students of philosophy, adjudication between diverse theories of identity is of scant practical consequence. For students of Halakhah, however, that investigation is divine in the most literal sense of the term: It contributes to a deeper understanding of divine mysteries encoded and revealed in Halakhah.
I cannot think of another person on the face of the globe who is both a world-class lamdon like Rabbi Bleich who is also at home with sophisticated forays into multiple secular disciplines like philosophy, science, and law. Having had the privilege to know him for many years, I can hear him protesting that mastering other disciplines is nothing he would take pride in if it would come at the cost of mastering another Tosafos. Everything that he has ever turned to, however, has always served as a dutiful handmaiden to Torah, his chief and only interest. This article is a successful example of how some wider knowledge can not only illuminate Torah, but ultimately demonstrate that hafoch bah, hafoch bah d’kula bah.
Oh, yes. An added bonus is an endnote that considers accurate and inaccurate understandings of the popular notion that the pig will one day become permissible.