Friday, November 26, 2010

KrumBagel’s Video

I happen to enjoy reading Sefarim that offer various insights on the Parhsas HaShavua (weekly Torah portion) by Chazal, Rishonim, and Achronim about people, events, and Mitzvos of the Torah. I believe the popular term is Parshanut. I often find Achronim (usually of recent vintage) who give clever explanations of why one of the Avos did something in a certain way because they were observing a certain Halacha.

Such insights often have a beautiful internal logic. But I find them to be farfetched and wonder if these Achroinim are just using their brilliant minds and encyclopedic knowledge of Torah to say a nice Vort. I take these kinds of insights with a grain of salt.

Did Ya’akov Avinu eat Matzah and Maror on Pesach? What about Gebrokts? Did he only drink Chalav Yisroel? Did he light a Menorah on Chanukah? Did he read the Megilah on Purim? Did he fast on Taanis Esther?

There is a fascinating but controversial YouTube video that has gone viral (at least as far as the Orthodox Jewish community is concerned) - that deals with this issue. When I first viewed it last week... I thought it was cute and that it raised these questions in a challenging way. But I also thought it seemed to be a bit too irreverent. And that some viewers could mistakenly see it as making light of the Avos, Rashi, and the firmly held traditional views the Yeshiva world has about the Avos. So I passed on commenting on it.

Upon further reflection - and after reading some of the published responses I have come to the conclusion that this video cannot be ignored. It encapsulates one of the biggest theological controversies in Orthodoxy in our day. One that was generated by the right wing ban of Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s books on Torah and science: How do we view Rishonim who disagree with the views of the favored Rishonim of today’s right wing rabbinic leaders and a great many of previous generations of rabbinic leaders?

The video has apparently been deemed unacceptable by the some rabbinic leaders on the right who felt the need to publicly protest it. After consultations with them Rabbi Yair Hoffman published a response in the 5 Towns Jewish Times and VIN.

Rabbi Hoffman is one of the good guys. He is a Charedi Mechanech who has always been on the right side of any issue that he publicly expressed an opinion on. Not only that - he has actually acted on many pof them. But on this issue I believe he is mistaken.

The underlying premise of this video questions the proposition that the Avos literally observed the entire Torah including rabbinic commandments. Rabbi Hofffman calls it the maximalist approach. This is the one preferred by the right to the exclusion of other Rishonim who disagree.

The idea that Avos observed all of the Torah is mentioned by Rashi in explanation of Genesis (26:4-5). The Torah tells us that Abraham was blessed by God because he listened to Him - keeping all ‘His edicts, Mitzvos, statutes and laws’. In a nutshell Rashi explains that these words mean that all the Mitzvos in the Torah, both written and oral. Even those of later rabbinic origin designed as ‘fences’ to prevent transgression of biblical law.

Other Rishonim like the Ramban give different explanations implying that these words do not refer to either biblical or rabbinic law.

The maximalist approach is an easy sell to those who have been indoctrinated to be Mevatel Daas – deny their own thinking in favor of those greater in Torah knowledge than themselves. They will typically say: ‘If the Gedolim and other recent Meforshim say so - who are we to go look elsewhere for interpretations that may contradict them?’

So if they are told that the Avos observed the entire Torah – they do not question it. That other Rishonim may dispute this doesn’t matter to them. They have been told to ignore those views and some may not even be aware of them.

But those of us who are used to critical thinking find these Rishonim far more reasonable and therefore more compelling.

The debate about this video is essentially the same debate about whether Chazal occasionally made mistakes in matters of science. That is the (now famous) view of Avaraham Ben HaRambam. Until a few years ago it was egitimate to say that in matters of science Chazal made occasional errors. Although they were well versed in the science of their era they were lacking tremendously in data and the technology to study it that is available in our day.

The right wing Yeshiva world seems to always take the maximalist option. They say that if it made it into the Gemarah it is not an error. Either we do not understand the Gemarah - or the Gemarah is using science in allegorical ways and in reality referring to spiritual things.

I believe both views are legitimate. But the right wing has now deemed all statements of Chazal to be infallible – including matters of science – implying that those who say that Chazal erred in matters of science are stating Kefira - heresy!

Back to the video. As I said - my own view is that it is a bit too irreverent. It goes too far in ridiculing those who take the maximalist approach that the Avos observed all of the Mitzvos. They should not be ridiculed. But as I also said - I do think the video makes some great points about the problems with maximalist views.

The Yeshiva world completely ignores these views. That’s wrong. They have a right to choose which view they prefer but to ignore the Rishonim who disagree- treating them as unacceptable is insulting to some of the very Rishonim that are so revered by them.

I more or less agree with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s take on this. He posted his views on Cross-Currents. The Avos require our maximum awe and respect. These founding fathers of Judaism were Godly people the likes of which have not existed since biblical times. Saying that they did not necessarily observe Kol HaTorah Kula does not contradict that. It is not denigrating. It merely offers an alternative explanation to the Pasuk thna that of Rashi.

Rabbi Addlerstein’s essay is quite brilliant and is worth reading in its entirety. Here is an excerpt:

I don’t believe that the video denigrated either the Avos or those who take the “maximalist” approach to Chazal in general. The target of the video was people who do not stop and think. If I were asked for input into planned additions to the cardinal sins of Torah Judaism, I too would put disengaging the brain on the short list…

The yeshiva bochur in the video, however, meets every question with – silence. He shows a triumphalist attitude towards his interlocutor, but he has never thought of the questions, and is left speechless. The video, I believe, mocks those who uncritically absorb without stopping to think of the implications and the difficulties. Torah is too complex and too precious to treat that way.Rabbi Hoffman does concede that the alternate views by Rishonim are legitimate so they can be used for purposes of Kiruv. I have problems with limiting it in that way. Intelligent minds deserve intelligent answers. The words of the Rishonim should be open to all.

Is the video irreverent? Does it ridicule? Or does it challenge? I present it here for your consideration. Take a look and judge for yourself.