Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Rabbinic hyperbole and responsibility.

In the movie My Cousin Vinny two kids from Brooklyn head off to college, taking the 'scenic route' through the deep South. They stop off in a convenience store to buy some things and one of them leaves with a candy bar in his back pocket that he forgot to pay for. As they pull out of the parking lot the store is held up at gun point and the clerk is shot. Witnesses point to their car as being at the scene of the crime and they are quickly hauled in by the police. Naturally by now they've discovered the accidental shoplifting and assume that is why they've been arrested. They admit guilt but act rather nonchalant about it. The cop, who thinks they shot the clerk, is appalled at their no-biggie-we're-sorry attitude. Finally he can't stand it anymore and asks him what they did after they shot the clerk. The boys stop in their tracks. "I shot the clerk?" one of them sputters. "I shot the clerk?!?!" At their trial the cop reads the interrogation transcript: "And then he said, "I shot the clerk. I shot the clerk".

Its very easy to misinterpret words for reasons that are obvious. It's not as well known as it should be, but it is known that there is such a thing as rabbinic hyperbole. When reading any sefer shu"t one is struck by how every questioner is a "friend" of the posek and especially a "gaon". Well obviously that is a convention and when one comes across a "harav ha-gaon" in a sefer or a letter one has to understand that this is not a piece of evidence that the person is a gaon. The rabbinic style is the more flowery the better. That goes for ill as well as for good. It is especially true because of translation issues and the use of Talmudic and aggadic references, If you are looking for measure in rabbinic writing you are probably not going to find it. Not that this is a value judgment of that -- it is what it is, and it behooves outsiders (and insiders) to understand this.

But that said, when something is written the words stand and speak for themselves. Not everyone is adept at interpreting rabbinic writing. When R. E.M. Shach declared that writings of R. J.B. Soleveitchik to be "kefirah mamash" there is a pretty good bet that he was using hyperbole (however indefensible what he really meant is). His words stand by themselves even if we undertstand that they're intended to be blunter than they sound.

While you can't really demand that a culture change to suit the needs of outsiders, it seems that the tendency towards rabbinic hyperbole has caused more than one mess recently and in the past. It may be ludicrous for the cop to quote "I shot the clerk" as if it were confession, but those words were spoken. And if you're being interrogated you'd better not say something like that if you don't want it held against you later.

1 comment:

  1. FYI..

    "one of them leaves with a candy bar in his back pocket that he forgot to pay for"

    Actually, it's a can of tuna, and it was in his jacket pocket.

    Also, only one of the boys said "I shot the clerk?"



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