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Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The religious significance of Metaphysics: A tangent from the symposium on Eli Hirsch's paper on Identity in the Talmud

In our discussions of Eli Hirsch's paper, this week, Aaron Segal raised the following criticism of Hirsch's general approach to the Talmud. Segal said:

'We might wonder whether Hirsch’s assumption [that the disputants in the Talmud were making claims about the metaphysical nature of identity] compromises, to one degree or other, the religious value of either the original debates/conversations among the Talmudists or our study of them. If in these instances the Tana’im and Amora’im were making straightforwardly metaphysical claims and having metaphysical disputes, rather than making claims about what God wants from us, then does that not diminish the religious value of studying these disputes? I am aware of the Gemara in Avoda Zara that even Sihat Hulin (the mundane conversations) of Torah scholars require study, and I don’t mean to question that, but can one compare the religious value of studying Havayot D’abaye V’rava when they are directly grappling with the will and word of God to their discussions of “mundane matters”, even when those mundane matters are as interesting and ripe for philosophizing as identity? I can only record my own feeling that one cannot.'

This lead me [Sam Lebens] to question whether metaphysics is really devoid of religious significance. At first I compared it to the religious significance of science, in its attempt to chart the terrain of God's universe. A long debate ensued. I replicate the debate here so that the discussion can take on a life of its own, separately to our discussions of Hirsch's paper, as this has become somewhat of an independent tangent.