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Eliezer_Yudkowsky comments on Tsuyoku Naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger) - Less Wrong

111 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2007 05:49PM

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Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 27 March 2007 08:03:26PM 17 points [-]

Barkley, the accumulation of Talmud was based on the theory that - I know this will sound strange, but bear with me - the younger rabbis were all simply writing down things that older rabbis had told them. In the Orthodox view the Talmud is the "Torah sheh b'al'Peh", the Oral Torah, which was also given to Moses at Mount Sinai, and then transmitted verbally down through the generations until it was finally written down. All law in the Talmud is supposed to have been transmitted from Mount Sinai - there's nowhere else that wisdom can come from. If there are disputes in the commentaries, then they're both right, and the task of future generations is to figure out how they can both be right, because you can never say an older rabbi is wrong, because they're closer to Mount Sinai than you. The fact that much of the law in the Mishna or Gemara is blatantly medieval or blatantly based on incorrect medieval beliefs is somehow just not thought about.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 April 2010 09:24:08PM 12 points [-]

"If there are disputes in the commentaries, then they're both right" I know this is a derailment but I wish somebody had told me that this is how it was supposed to work! I was so confused when I was trying to learn. It didn't seem to make any sense. Now it makes even less sense.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 April 2010 09:49:19PM *  24 points [-]

Some minor comments regarding Eliezer's remark. The emphasis on non-contradiction of opinions in the Talmud and elsewhere is fairly recent. Maimonides for example was more than willing to say that statements in the Talmud were wrong when it came to factual issues. Also note that much of the Talmud was written before the medieval period (the Mishna dates to around 200 and the Gemara was completed around 600 or so only very early in to the medieval period).

The notion of the infallibility of the Talmud is fairly recent gaining real force with the writings of the Maharal in the late 1500s. In fact, many Orthodox Jews don't realize how recent that aspect of belief is. The belief in the infallible and non-contradictiory nature of the Talmud has also been growing stronger in some respects. Among the ultra-Orthodox, they are starting to apply similar beliefs to their living or recently deceased leaders and the chassidim have been doing something similar with their rebbes for about 200 years. Currently, there are major charedi leaders who have stated that mice can spontaneously generate because the classical sources say so. I have trouble thinking of a better example of how religion can result in serious misunderstandings about easily testable facts.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 29 April 2010 10:24:11AM 7 points [-]

And speaking of bias, I find myself wanting to blame the belief in an infallible Talmud on fundamentalism-envy, but it just doesn't fit the timeline.

Comment author: Vladimir 14 June 2016 03:05:55AM 0 points [-]

Everyone claims these days that canonical "literalism" is a recent phenomenon. It's said about Islam especially and now this comment claims it about Judaism. I've also heard this about the Greek religions (there's a book called 'Did the Ancients believe in their myths'). Is this really true? Or is this some kind of post-modern thing where everyone is trying to prove how much "wiser" our ancestors were as if they weren't literal idiots.

I think the common sense intuition is that literalism&fundamentalism must have been more prevalent in the past, but I'm willing to update if anyone can demonstrate some kind of trend in any of these religions.

Comment author: ChristianKl 15 June 2016 04:48:11PM 2 points [-]

The case of Maimonides is well-discussed in Persecution and the Art of Writing by Leo Strauss. Maimonides considers it bad to teach the secrets of the Talmud to people who aren't worthy and thinks that the Talmud contains wrong statements to mislead naive readers.

Issues of secret knowledge and mechanisms to keep knowledge from getting picked up by people are found in many spiritual traditions.

There a key distinction between esoteric and exoteric works. Reading esoteric works literally usually means to treat them as being exoteric.

If you look at someone like Richard Bandler who founded NLP, Bandler often tries to teach esoterically whereby he's not explicit about what he wants to teach. If you understand how he teaches than you won't take a story about a personal experience that Bandler recounts as literal but as a vehicle for the transmission of esoteric knowledge.

When Maimonides wanted to teach esoterically he also argues that the esoteric knowledge is more important than the literal truth. Maimonides is likely making a lot of decisions that are different when he teaches that are different from those that Bandler makes, but both consider esoteric knowledge to be important.

People who value exoteric knowledge like Greek philosophers or modern scientists tend to be a lot more literal than people who value esoteric knowledge. Especially at the level of teachers. That doesn't necessarily mean that the average lay-person understands that certain claims about knowledge aren't to be taken literally.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 03 December 2016 11:43:28PM 0 points [-]

I don't know of any broader, larger trends. It is worth noting here that the Rabbis of the Talmud themselves thought that the prior texts (especially the Torah itself) were infallible, so it seems that part of what might be happening is that over time, more and more gets put into the very-holy-text category.

Also, it seems important to distinguish here between being unquestionably correct with being literal. In a variety of different religions this becomes an important distinction and often a sacrifice of literalism is in practice made to preserve correctness of a claim past a certain point. Also note that in many religious traditions, the traditions which are most literal try to argue that what they are doing is not literalism but something more sophisticated. For example, among conservative Protestants it isn't uncommon to claim that they are not reading texts literally but rather using the "historical-grammatical method."

Comment author: hairyfigment 04 December 2016 01:18:32AM 0 points [-]

The Talmud from what little I know may be a poor example of this. In fact, last I checked the Torah came from a combination of contradictory texts, and tradition comes close to admitting this with the story of Ezra.

I think most people in ancient times held all sorts of beliefs about the world which we would call "literalist" if someone held them today, but they rarely if ever believed in the total accuracy of one source. They believed gods made the world because that seemed like a good explanation at the time. They may have believed in the efficacy of sacrifice, because why wouldn't you want sacrifices made to you?

Comment author: Nornagest 04 December 2016 03:03:48AM *  1 point [-]

I think conflating literalism and fundamentalism here is probably a bad idea. I am not an expert in the early history of the Abrahamic religions, but it seems likely that textual literalism's gone in and out of style over the several thousand years of Abrahamic history, just as many other aspects of interpretation have.

Fundamentalism is a different story. There have been several movements purporting to return to the fundamentals of religion, but in current use the word generally refers only to the most recent crop of movements, which share certain characteristics because they share a common origin: they are reactions against modernity and against the emerging universal culture. It stands to reason that these characteristics would be new (at least in this form), because prior to them there was no modernity or universal culture to react against.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 04 December 2016 05:47:17AM 1 point [-]

I think it's more useful to speak of fundamentalism as an attitude, and if you speak about it this way, there is nothing new about it, but it always exists in opposition to something different -- e.g. the 1st century Sadducees were fundamentalists, and the Pharisees, who tended to interpret their religion in the light of Greek philosophy, were mostly opposite to this.