I was always taught that the great Torah scholars were as near-perfect human beings as could possibly be, particularly in their scholarly abilities, but perhaps even more so in their character traits pertaining to scholarship; that is to say that their only goal was the objective pursuit of truth, and they did not care for the honor of producing a novel idea or the victory in refuting an opponent.
This was often illustrated by quoting Talmudic passages where there is a dispute between two amoraim and one of them brings a proof to the position of his opponent. What greater example of selfless devotion to the truth could there be?
But it turns out that there are a lot of sources that indicate that this was not in fact always the case. Specifically, a whole bunch of acharonim leveled accusations against earlier acharonim, and even rishonim, claiming that in their zeal to critique their opponents they made a mistake or misunderstood or distorted something. This seems to be acknowledging that there was an ulterior motive (of critiquing others) that overpowered (perhaps unconsciously) the singular quest for the truth. What follows are several such accusations, with my translations:
אמנם מלשון מכ"ת משמע כאלו אין כאן מקום לקושיות של הרא"בד כלל וכאלו טחו עיניו מראות דברים פשוטים ונגלי' וחלילה לנו לומר כן על הרא"בד שגם הוא מאור עינינו ומפיו אנו חיים אך ורק מפני חשק ההשגה לפעמים הוא מגדיל הענין וזה הוא אחד מהם שמן קושיות רפיות עשה דגושות
However, from the language of His Honor it is implied as if there is no room here for the questions of the Ra'avad at all, and as if he blocked his eyes from seeing things that are obvious and revealed. And Heaven forfend for us to say this about the Ra'avad, as he too was the light of our eyes and from his mouth we live. Rather, because of his love of critiquing he sometimes exaggerated the matter – and this is one of them – and from weak questions he made harsh questions.
ולפי דעתינו לא הבין לא דברי האגדה ולא דברי רבינו שלמה ובהיות רצונו של הרב הנחמני להשיג על דברי רבינו שלמה מחזר תמיד אחר דבריו בלי עיון ובהסח הדעת
And in our opinion he did not understand the words of the Aggadah, nor the words of Rabbi Solomon [Rashi]. And because the desire of the Rabbi the Nachmani [Ramban] was to critique the words of Rabbi Solomon, he constantly goes after them without analysis and without thought.
וא"כ מה שכתב בספר נקודות הכסף מרוב חפצו להשיג על הט"ז כתב כן ואינו עיקר
And if so, that which he wrote in the book Nekudas Hakesef, he [only] wrote it on account of his abundant desire to level critiques on the Turei Zahav, and it is not correct.
ושרי ליה מאריה להרשב"א שהשיג על הרא"ה בזה וכתב שטעה טעות גדולה ונהפוך הוא שהדבר פשוט לאיסור וכמו שכתבתי לעיל בסימן א' ס"ק כ"ט אלא שבאמת מרוב חפצו להשיג על הרא"ה בר פלוגתיה לא דייק במילתיה כולי האי
And let his Master forgive the Rashba who critiqued the Re'ah in this, and he wrote that he made a grave mistake. But it is just the opposite, for the matter is obvious to prohibit, as I wrote earlier in 1:29, but in truth on account of his abundant desire to level critiques against the Re'ah his interlocutor, he was not so careful with his [the Re'ah's] words.
והרב הש"ך שכתב על דברי העט"ז וז"ל ולא ראינו אינו ראיה כו' מרוב חפצו להשיג על העט"ז כתב כן
And the rabbi the Sifsei Kohen who wrote about the words of the Ateres Zekeinim, and these are his words, "and [the fact that] we have not seen is not a proof, etc." wrote this out of his abundant desire to critique the Ateres Zekeinim.
והרב"ח ז"ל אחר הס"ר מרוב חפצו להשיג על מרן ז"ל ולהליץ בעד רבינו הטור לא חש לדקדק בדבר
And the Rabbi the Bayis Chadash, after much forgiveness [?], from his abundant desire to critique Master of blessed memory and to defend on behalf of our rabbi the Tur, was not concerned to be careful in the matter.
רק ידע מעלתו כי אם נעיין הטיב שם בכל ההשגות על הרב ט"ז נראה כי במחכ"ת הגאון בעל הש"ך אשר מרוב חפצו להשיג על הגאון בעל ט"ז לא שת לבו הזך והטהור לעיין הטיב בדברי האלה של בעל הט"ז כי לדעתי החלושה כל השגותיו שם אינם כלום
But His Honor knows that if we look carefully there at all his critiques of the rabbi the Turei Zahav it appears that – with forgiveness of the honor of his Torah – the genius the author of the Sifsei Kohen, from his abundant desire to level critiques against the genius the author of the Turei Zahav, did not set his pure heart to look carefully at these words of the author of the Turei Zahav, for in my weak opinion all his critiques there are nothing.
ורו"מ מרוב חפצו להשיג אף בדברי הב"י סי רד שהביא בעצמו לא עיין שפיר
And His Honor [R. Yisrael], from his abundant desire to critique even the words of the Beis Yosef in Siman 204 that he himself cited, did not look properly.
וכ"ז חששא רחוקה כן העתיק הרב המשיג בשמו והשיג עליו ובמחכת"ה ברוב חפצו להשיג עליו ונזדמנה לו נוסחות משובשת אבל בנוסחתינו כתוב ולא ידעתי למה הוצרך למצא טעם לאסור כי טעם האיסור פשוט וא"כ יפה תמה בזה
"And all this is a tiny concern." So copied the rabbi the critiquer [R. Chaim Ben Betzalel] in his [R. Moshe Isserles] name, and he critiqued him. And with forgiveness of the great honor of his Torah, this was in his abundant desire to critique him, and he was presented with corrupt texts. In our texts, however, it is written "and I don't know why he needed to find a reason to prohibit, for the reason to prohibit is simple", and if so, he [R. Moshe Isserles] was correctly astounded by this.
Thus we have accusations against:
- R. Avraham Ben Dovid
- R. Moshe Ben Nachman
- R. Shlomo Ben Aderes
- R. Chaim Ben Betzalel
- R. Yoel Sirkes
- R. Shabsai Hakohen x 3
- R. Yisrael
The accusations were made by:
- R. Gershon Ashkenazi
- R. Avraham of Viterbo
- R. Chizkiya de Silva x 2
- R. Shmuel Ben Elkana of Altona
- R. Mordechai Karmi
- R. Ber Oppenheimer
- R. Shlomo Drimer
- R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson
In light of these accusations, is there any way to salvage the idea that the great Torah scholars were only motivated by a singular pursuit of truth, or must I admit that I was taught incorrectly? Are there any later authorities that deal with these accusations (or others) and somehow interpret them in a way that does not cast aspersions on the named scholars, some of whom are among the greatest of the rishonim and acharonim?