Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Vertlach; a rant.

I like vertlach. Vertlach are nice. They are spicy. Vertlach are often based on Gemara, midrash, rishonim, meforshei tanakh and the like. There is nothing annoying about that. Sometimes vertlach convey profound insights. But when they are used by people as talking points they can be oh-so-annoying.
For example, there are linguistic vertlach, gematriya and shoresh comparisons. There is a well-known sheva brachos vort about ahava, love, stemming from the Hebrew hav, giving. A well-meaning and positive message is conveyed in that vort. But when it is wielded as if the literal meaning of Hebrew love is giving, well... annoying.
Another example is a nice vort I heard attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (I'm not sure which one). He asked why converts are called "ger" (stranger) in rabbinic Hebrew when the Torah wishes us not to remind converts about their past and to integrate them into the body of the Jewish people. Wouldn't a good start be to not refer to them as gerim? He answers that ger is an acronym of gashmiyos, material, and ruchniyos, spirit. And that Islam typifies misplaced gashmiyos and Christianity misplaced ruchniyos (both ideas that are well grounded in traditional Jewish sources, even though they can easily be parsed apart). The ger is so called because he recognized the fusion of gashmiyos and ruchniyos in Judaism, its proper balance. That's a nice vort. Yet annoying if offered as the peshat in the word ger.
Another example might by Deut. 4:28 in which the Jews are told of bitter exile to come and that they would serve gods, idols of wood and stone that neither see nor here. I don't know where the following comes from (although I assume its a midrash or one of the major meforshim), but the peshat offered is the following. Who makes idols of wood or stone? Aren't idols made from precious metals? Therefore the wood and stone referred to is the wood of the cross and the stone of the ka'aba. Now it so happens that I think this is likely the intention of the passuk, or rather it is how the passuk is understandably read in light of history. But is it the way to read the passuk to the exclusion of the literal meaning? Native American Indians had wooden totem poles; ancient idols were often made from plain old stone, not just gold or silver.
Then there are the proofs for Torah, many from the Kuzari. Not strictly a vort, but definitely used as a talking point: there is the Kuzari's idea that Judaism cannot have been faked since the claim of 600,000 ancestors witnessing the revelation at Sinai could have never been advanced by Judaism unless it in fact happened. Now, in fact this proof is no such thing. Its a polemical argument. Whether or not R. Yehuda Ha-levi thought it airtight is immaterial, but the Kuzari is a Moreh Nevuchim of sorts for Jews in the age of ascendant Islam and Christianity and the competition from Karaism.
Now, its important to not denigrate the messenger. Hopefully no one would accuse me of doing that. But the other side of the coin is that some people feel compelled to take an argument like that of the Kuzari as airtight not because they have tried to blow air into it to see if it is but because they wouldn't dream of testing an argument given by a Rishon (if indeed R. Yehuda Ha-levi should be classified as a Rishon per se).
What made me think of these things? It was a comment in a DovBear post about Shabbos. One of the commenters mentioned that the fact that Christianity moved, as it were, the sabbath to Sunday and Islam to Friday demonstrated divine providence and the literal fulfillment of the Torah's statement that shabbos is an os hi le-olam "beni u-ven benei yisrael". Since Shabbos is a personal sign between God and Israel it could not be that non-Jews could appropriate it. Hence, Hashem arranged history so that unconsciously the competing monotheistic religions altered their own special day. Now there is nothing wrong with that idea per se, even though one can draw attention to the fact of Seventh Day Adventists. (In fact, I did just that and someone then countered that they don't observe Shabbos anyway -- which is true, but neither do Christians at large, so what's the point of the whole vort?) It is just slightly annoying (yes, its my own fault that I am easily annoyed) as this particular bit of derush-masquerading-as-peshat is a talking point.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the confusion, rather than fusion, of peshat and derash goes against my sensibilities.
I know a very fine yeshiva bachur -- he is a ba'al chessed, ehrlich and more -- but who in many ways embodies things I dislike about the yeshiva world of the moment; disdain for secular education, certain kinds of criticial thinking et cetera. But one of the things I find very pleasant about his ways is that when he says a vort he always prefaces the punchline by saying "al pi derush...". I have no idea if he simply heard someone say that or if he really distinguishes between peshat and derash. Either way, simply adding those words and acknowledging that what is about to be said is spice and not the meal makes a vort go down much more smoothly for me.

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