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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:

Shu"t Avodas Hagershuni # 84

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.

Sefer Emunas Chachamim Fifth Essay

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.

Peri Chadash Y.D. 105:1

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.

Peri Chadash Y.D. 118:27

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.

Mekom Shmuel # 80

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.

Ma'amar Mordechai O.C. 372:10

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.

Mei Be'eir # 107

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.

Shu"t Beis Shlomo Y.D. 188

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.

Toras Moshe 5:6

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:

The accusations were made by:

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?

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    Your proofs for this virtue are Talmudic, yet your question is from rishonim/acharonim. Maybe things changed? – Ploni Jul 9 '18 at 0:12
  • @Ploni That wasn't meant to be a proof. It was just an example of how I was taught this. They happened to illustrate the principle via Talmudic passages but they certainly applied it to rishonim and acharonim as well. – Alex Jul 9 '18 at 0:19
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    1. Yes, unfortunately, you were taught incorrectly. While "the great Torah scholars" were of great character, they were still human beings (who happen to be fallible). 2. All the "מרוב חפצו להשיג" quotes, and similar, are paraphrases of different texts and mere demonstrations of scholarly debate which tends elicit (again,from fallible people) harsh language, specifically from the passionate [for the truth] (cf. Tan. 4a) type but are ultimately at peace with each other (Kid. 30b). – Oliver Aug 1 '18 at 4:06
  • @Oliver Are you saying that they didn't really mean it? – Alex Aug 1 '18 at 17:34
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    @Alex Correct, in probably all your examples that’s the case, IMO. It was a typical paraphrase to use when critiquing a book in which 1) the author was the critical type and often critiqued others, or 2) the book was written as a critique specifically directed at another. – Oliver Aug 2 '18 at 13:20
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You worked so hard on the question, it seems unfair not to have a single answer (am I right saying a so-so answer is better than no answer?)

When I started my Teshuva some 30 years ago, I was also influenced by "common beliefs/taboos in Judaism" you mention - "a belief in their singular devotion to truth". To answer your question I need to discuss this assumption.

The key problem of it is the definition of the word "truth", which is commonly misunderstood by the religious vs the scientific world.

  • The scientific world is based on the "de-Facto" truth (אמת מארץ תצמח). This empirical truth can be only one, therefore in science, the formulas are not quoted by their discoverer. When scientists discuss an issue, they all pursue THE truth.

  • The religious world uses "de-Jure" truth, i.g "it is true because I said so". Since the Mitzvah of following the sages, their sayings become "de-jure" true, no matter what the reality is. Remember the תנורו של עכנאי dispute, where the sages explicitly said so - "we don't care what the reality is - we rule our reality". This is why it is so important to say who said that - because it is not THE truth, it's A truth, one of many (אלו ואלו דברי א' חיים).

This distinction undermines your assumption because it is either

  • "they are not devoted to THE truth" or
  • "they are devoted to A truth (of their own)".

I hope I made it clear.

  • Truth in Judaism does not mean "because I said so". Halacha involves determining the truth to the best of your ability and then implementing various rules. Two rules that were invoked by תנורו של עכנאי are 1) The law follows the majority in case of dispute. 2) God cannot tell us what the law is. This does not translate into every statement of every individual rabbi being "true". – Alex Aug 1 '18 at 19:28
  • @Alex So you're saying G-d is not THE truth? G-d knows what THE LAw is but let the sages decide on the Halachah. See, Law vs Halacha. Do you think the laws of mat and physics can be decided by majority? That's exactly "because I said so", just like the Senate (or the Knesset) - nothing to do with the reality. It takes time to understand this concept of לא בשמים היא - G-d letting the sages to decide on Halachah in contradiction to the absolute truth. – Al Berko Aug 1 '18 at 19:31
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    You are conflating two different things. By definition of being human, humans will not always be able to definitively arrive at the ultimate truth represented by the Torah. Judaism provides for this by having a legal system which has rules for what to do in cases of doubt or dispute. Just because it is possible that the legal conclusion will differ from the "authorial intent" does not mean that it is a free-for-all where anyone can say whatever they want. You still have to strive for the truth, and statements can be proven/refuted within this quest. – Alex Aug 1 '18 at 19:54
  • Try to prove to me why not "anyone can say whatever they want" - what will happen? As long as you can't disprove a negation of a statement, you can't call it THE truth. Try to do that - try to add "not" before the saying of the sages - can you disprove the negation? No, So what's the difference? – Al Berko Aug 1 '18 at 20:10
  • I'm not the one that claimed that anyone is saying THE truth. My point is that even if we can't always know what is the truth, we can sometimes know what is not the truth. If a given statement can be refuted then it is refuted. It is not the person's "own truth". – Alex Aug 1 '18 at 20:21

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