Reader: I recently had a discussion with a very intelligent Jew who, like myself, keeps Halacha. We were discussing a certain topic (the nature of the topic is irrelevant to this discussion) when I began citing sources from the Rishonim. I told him that in matters of Hashkafa I rely on what the Rishonim say, even though it may go against the opinions of present-day rabbis. This led him to ask a very good question.
This is (more or less) what he said to me: "I understand that you've decided to pick the Rishonim as your Hashkafic authorities, but how is that any different than what Conservative Jews and secular professors do? I've had discussions with people who have stated their position that certain Rishonic statements go against the words of the Sages of the Gemara. For example, there is a Midrash that says that God revealed all of the Oral Torah to Moshe -- Halacha, aggadata, machloksim, and chiddushim. The Rambam, however, says that God only gave to Moshe the mitzvos and their explanations, but not the aggadata and certainly not all, future chidushim. Why do we accept the Rambam and not the words of the Sages of the Gemara?
Mesora: Regarding Conservatives: Once Conservatives argue on who were the Baalie Mesora, (authoritative Jewish scholars) and argue on Halacha (Jewish Law), they have no status of authority. Let them make up their false interpretations, but they have deviated from Moses' Torah. All Tanaaim and Amoraim (Rabbis of the Talmud) unanimously consented on the body of Oral Law, Written law, and what was the Halacha in all areas. The Conservatives dispute this, and thereby, lose all credibility. It is simple. In Halacha, we have a conclusive and exclusive body of Judaism's authoritative Halachik (law) positions, called the "Shulchan Aruch". These laws are derived from the Sages' rulings in the Talmud. All Talmudic Tanaaim and Amoraim unanimously agree, the Talmud is the basis for Halacha. No authority ever argued this point. Conservatives and Reformed Jews attempt to rewrite Jewish law, and history, something that the original transmitters - the Tanaaim and Amoraim - never agreed to. The rule is this; if an authoritative body - Tanaaim, Amoraim and Rishonim - unanimously consented to what the boundaries of Jewish law are, and what their rules of interpretaion are, no one has greater authority with which to oppose the originators. Period. These Torah authorities alone possess the sole voice on what comprises Jewish law and its exegesis. It would be like one today creating a new car called a "Ford". Would it be a Ford? No. "Ford" has already been defined, without dispute, and in the fashion that it can never be disputed: Henry Ford defined what a Ford is by his original creation of the Ford. Henry Ford's definition is the ONLY Ford, all others are plagiarized or impostors.
The origin of a qualitatively new entity, by definition, defines that new entity as the original and REAL entity. This is the formula for determining what is an original, and what is a fake. Again, let's say I create a new device, never before created, a laser beam, which, when pointed at someone talking, or at a source of any sound, even miles away, will record that sound. Now, I call this new item the "LaserCord." It is qualitatively new, as laser beam and sound have never been in operation in such a fashion. It is unique to my creation. Now, let's say another person says the "LaserCord" is really not to use laser, but to use a light beam instead. Does he have any authority on what "LaserCord" is? Of course not. It was my invention, and I brought it into existence. This second person commits two crimes; 1)he distorts authorship, attempting to replace my authoritative relationship to the “LaserCord” with his, 2)he attempts to rewrite history, suggesting the “LaserCord” is something other than it's true form. Just as this individual tries to redefine a “LaserCord”, by saying it runs on light and not lasers, Conservatives are equally corrupt in their attempt to redefine what Torah Law is, how it is to be interpreted, and who are the true authorities. These issues were originally, and unanimously agreed to by the originators, the Rabbis of the Talmud. Once the Rabbis defined Torah through God's sanction of them, and through their strict adherence to the process of derivation and reasoning, the Talmudic body of knowledge and authoritative law was sealed and undisputed. No participant in the creation of Talmud argued on its scope or its methods of reasoning. Since the creators of Talmud are the ones who define it, latter Conservative and Reformed Jews have no authority, for numerous reasons. Conservatives and Reformed Jews cannot redefine "Ford", “LaserCord", or Torah.
Regarding Medrashim: You wrote, "there is a Midrash that says that God revealed all of the Oral Torah to Moshe -- Halacha, aggadata, machloksim, and chiddushim...” Please show me this source. ALWAYS see a quoted source with your own eyes. Many times, distorted sources causes error. But again, when deciphering Midrash, we make resource to the authorities, not to Conservative and Reformed Jews who deviate with neglect, ignorance, and subjective agendas.
Haskhkafa (Philosophy) as opposed to Halacha (Jewish Law): There is no psak (ruling) in Hashkafa - philosophy. As a Rabbi once said, no one, not even a Rishon, can tell you what to believe. Either you believe something or not. Acceptance of a truth cannot be legislated. It is a phenomenon wherein you alone decide. This must be clear. For example, no one can tell me that I believe in ghosts. Either I do, or I don't. In contrast to Jewish law, which governs actions, not belief, Jewish law IS legislated. Our actions can be performed, even though we not believe the idea behind the action. So belief is totally up to each one of us, whereas Jewish Law - our actions - are decided by the Rabbi's explanation of the Torah, Prophets, Writings and Talmud. In philosophy, we have no obligation to "agree" with a Rishonic philosophy, especially if your mind disagrees with it. The Rishonim themselves argued on each other's philosophical points. This arguing displays their position is that you must think for yourself, just as they demonstrated. Here, rank plays no role. But I would add, one as great as Rambam should be studied with care.
One's philosophy must align with reason, and with how the world operates, with God's justice, and with Torah. If you feel a position does not align, even a Rishon's position, you have no obligation to agree with him. YOUR reason must dictate your position in philosophy. But again, one with a great reputation should not be easily dismissed.
Reader: Alternatively, some people even go so far as to say that the Sages of Gemara didn't even know how to explain the simple pesukim - verses, as demonstrated by their nit-picky and far-fetched Midrashic interpretations. Such people then proceed to virtually re-write the Oral Torah by giving their own interpretations.
Mesora: You write, "Alternatively, some people even go so far as to say that the Sages of Gemara didn't even know how to explain the simple pesukim, as demonstrated by their nit-picky and far-fetched Midrashic interpretations." My response, this can be uttered only by one completely ignorant of Talmudic exegesis. Let this fool study Talmud for 20 years, then let's see if he feels our Sages were "nit-picky", or rather, "genuinely devoted to an exactitude in study, essential for arriving at God's subtle and deep truths".
Reader: Now, I'm having a very hard time seeing the difference between what they are doing and what you are doing. There are plenty of Achronim who disagree with the Rishonim, for example, about whether there is any benefit in studying philosophy, about the nature of the soul (a reference to the "doctrtine of divine sparks" of the Chassidim), teachings of and the approach to kabbala, etc.
Mesora: Each person must be a philosopher. He lives his life according to some principles, some philosophy, of what is good or bad, right or wrong, true or false. No one escapes such decisions. Thus, we are all philosphers. It is against reason to suggest that philosophy should not be studied. To suggest philosophy not be studied, is to suggest man should not be man. Rashi states we should even study the other idolatrous philosophies so as to know how to teach our children what is false. Abraham did so, and was selected as a leader of the Jewish nation. God would not select him if he erred in his studies.
Reader: Isn't your rejection of these latter-day authorities in favor of the Rishonim the same type of approach as those who reject the plain meanings of the Midrashim in favor of the explanations of the Rishonim, or who reject the words of the Sages of the Gemara in favor of the plain meanings of the pesukim?
Mesora: We do not reject an opinion based on the date the author lived, but on the validity of the opinion. If someone today would prove Maimonides incorrect on a point, we would not follow Maimonides. The greats themselves followed reason, and not those who predated them. In philosophy, reason must rule.
Reader: And furthermore, isn't your choice of relying on "the Rishonim" somewhat arbitrary? Aren't you just "drawing the line" a few hundred years later than they do? Who is to say that every Rishon was learning the subject correctly, or that no Acharon could have attained a more correct understanding of an area?"
Mesora: I don't favor a Rishonic view that is false, when an Acharon is correct. I feel this is clear.