Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The masses with a historical sense have needs too - a reflection on YouTubegate.

A YouTube video called Yeshiva guy says over a vort has been making the rounds. Incredibly for our little circles it has 30000+ views in one week. By the J-blogosphere standards, that's like Miley-Cyrus-getting-caught-wth-cocaine-at-a-traffic-stop viral. Clearly it struck a chord of some sort.

For some reason this was deemed worthy of a public response (here) "after consultation with Gedolei HaPoskim."

The author of the response, Rabbi Yair Hoffman, does not focus at all on the target of the video "Yeshiva guy says over a vort" since he realizes that the reason why "Yeshiva guy says over a vort" is because this is what he is taught. Therefore he intuits that the video is aiming for higher hanging fruit, and responds accordingly.

He summarizes three positions on how to interpret the Gemara Yoma 28b that states that the Avos (patriarchs) kept the Torah. Not surpisingly, there are three positions, which he terms maximalist, minimalist and middle-position.

Writing about the minimalist view, he says "The minimalist position believes that this Gemorah should be understood in a somewhat allegorical sense – in other words we should and must look and view the Avos and their children in the sense that they actually did perform all of the Mitzvos. Why so? There might be a tendency among the masses to view the patriarchs of Klal Yisroel in a somewhat lesser light because they did not have the sophisticated and more developed aspects of Avodas Hashem that we might have. “For Avrohom Avinu – a Bris Milah was a nisayon – for me – it is a spiritual experience that I look forward to..” – might be an example of such thinking."

After summarizing these positions he concludes "The overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold of the maximalist position, and this is the general position that should be taught in our Torah institutions. When one is involved in Kiruv or deals with people that have been raised in secular environments, it is the opinion of this author that all three positions should be presented. None of the positions, however, should ever be mocked or derided. This is not the Torah way."

This is extremely interesting to me. The part I bolded speaks of catering to the needs of the masses. What I believe happened here is that Hoffman doesn't realize, or care, that this is a contradiction to his conclusion. It is not only "people raised in a secular environment" in a "kiruv" setting who cannot stomach the maximalist position - and that's why the video was created.

Putting aside the contradiction or disparity - the "mainstream" default should be to teach only one position - the maximalist - while for assimilated people all three should be taught rather than only one - the minimalist or the middle position - Hoffman sees no need for catering to the masses who can't take the maximalist position, the type who made the video viral by 1) identifying with its message and 2) passing it on. He only sees the scoffers (secretly ensconced within the Orthodox community) but not the people, who are also the masses, who also need their religion and their teachers to make sense to them.

Interestingly, there is a parallel to my position in the work of Nachman Krochmal ("Renak"). In his posthumously published Moreh Nevuchei Ha-zeman he teaches some things which are still considered controversial at best within Orthodoxy to this day; the Deutero-Isaiah hypothesis, the idea that not only weren't the Psalms written by David, but many of them were written as late as the Hasmonean period, etc. His thesis was as follows: first of all, these things are the truth and can be demonstrated through careful analysis of the books themselves. Secondly, these facts were known to Chazal and other exegetes as well, and this too can be demonstrated through careful analysis of the sources. However, they concealed these views from the masses and did not teach the historical truth about the authors of these books. Rather, they taught an edifying literary history which would inspire the masses and spoke to their spiritual needs of the time.

He conjectures, for example, that belief in the Davidic authorship of Psalm 137 (Al naharot Bavel/ By the rivers of Babylon) at one time enhanced one's appreciation of prophecy. However in our own time (Krochmal died in 1840) all this was to the contrary. Given the rise of the critical spirit the contention that David wrote that Psalm is no longer plausible, thus teaching it as historical fact is not inspiring and does not enhance one's appreciation for prophecy - it has the opposite effect on the reader. Therefore the time had come to investigate and teach the actual literary history of the Bible and this would be appropriate and inspiring for the times - and true.

This does sound wacky, but I think it is fair to understand the internal logic behind positions, whether they seem wacky or not. At the time the Jews did not yet possess their own modern scholarly literature. So if you were looking for a scholarly, "critical" discussion of Judaism written with modern research methods and principles you essentially had to read the productions of German Protestants, or Jews who basically copied them or translated their works into Hebrew. If you read these, you'd learn that rabbinic Judaism was borne in the wake of an anemic, arid and declining biblical religion corrupted by petty legalism and unspiritual priests. At that time there was a renewal of pristine religion - Christianity - waiting in the wings. Thus the Second Temple period was viewed as a period of Jewish decline, lacking in creativity and vitality.

But what if some of the best works of the Bible were produced in this period? Everyone agreed the Psalms were awesome. What if they were produced for singing in the Temple during this period? What if the productions of the early rabbis were not the remaining embers of a dying creed, but a glorious bonfire of renewed creativity?

Thus Krochmal - who firmly believed that the modern critical approach was correctly discovering the true literary history of these books - was fully able to offer a counter-approach to modern anti-Jewish scholarship. Judaism was vital after all. The 2nd Temple period was not the end of Judaism - it was the beginning of Judaism! By contrast, in earlier times the idea that all of Judaism was of the greatest antiquity was inspiring, and for that reason alone the rabbis taught it. I suspect Krokhmal would have been shocked to learn that in 2010 there would still be plenty of Jews who found the old approach inspiring, but facts are facts. People may couch questions of authorship in terms of heresy, but it's hard to make a convincing case that there's a dogma about who wrote Psalms. Who cares if some Psalms were Hasmonean? Answer: the people who care. I think that it's really a question of which religion people prefer - one substantially developed and similar to what it's like today in the very earliest times, or one in which development also occurs later.

Unfortunately it gets murky, because its no longer 1840 and Krochmal had the luxury of believing fully that the Torah was revealed to and written by Moshe even while adopting the critical approach, while at the same time today the scholarly position does not pass judgment on how vital or spiritual Judaism was in relation to Christianity.

Here is Krochmal's introduction:


  1. Lawrence Kaplan:

    A thoughtful post.

    A new edition of Moreh Nevukhei Ha-Zeman will be appearing shortly, edited by Dr. Yehoyada Amir.

    As I will argue in lecture I will be giving at Hebrew U. in Decmber, in my view the Ranak did not believe that the entire Torah was revealed to and written by Moshe. Rather, as I hope to show, in the Ranak's view while basic laws were revealed to Moshe, the Torah in its completed form stems from differing schools founded by Shmuel ha-Navi. But this is a long story.

  2. Now that sounds really interesting. Might I queue up and request a copy of your lecture once it is delivered? :-)

  3. Prof. Kaplan: I'd like to attend that lecture. Details, please?

  4. you realize that this entire article is all convulated gobbldygook don't you?

  5. Convulated sounds like an obstetrical term.

  6. What bothered me is the "missing vort" - i.e., did Yaakov Avinu say zecher or zeicher! :-) So I wrote a suggestion:

  7. RYGB - I saw the vort on your blog. Cute! But you claim the video-maker was oblivious to the concept of "torascha Shashuahai". I dont know about that. I'm reasonably sure the guy who made the video is quite aware of that concept. For you, maybe, the idea of avos having the Torah [what in yeshivah we used to call "Parshas Derachim" toireh] is mere shashuaim. But for the true believers, they are deathly serious when they say Lot was eating matzah because it was Pesach. You may as well say kinnim and pischei niddah are shashuaim.

    [While on the topic, I'd be happy to see how you explicate the concept of shashuaim atorah, possibly on your blog. Are you saying it's permissible to make games out of the Torah? to treat them like a song? To say over explanations for fun, that you dont really believe in? Must you give a disclaimer first that everything you're about to say is just a joke? I'm not attacking you, I would genuinely like to hear someone discuss this idea.]

  8. The sad thing is that it was never truly "necessary" to claim that the avos and emahos kept kol ha-torah kula. Belief in classical Judaism never really hinged on making this assertion.

    Instead, it has had the unfortunate and opposite effect of raising doubts about the legitimacy of rabbinic interpretation (or worse) to those who have thought critically about the claim. In turn, it has provoked a rather panicked and defensive response from "guardians of the faith."

    This has perpetuated a kind of vicious cycle where a fairly implausible claim that was never central to core orthodoxy suddenly assumes outsized importance.

  9. "The sad thing is that it was never truly "necessary" to claim that the avos and emahos kept kol ha-torah kula. Belief in classical Judaism never really hinged on making this assertion.

    This has perpetuated a kind of vicious cycle where a fairly implausible claim that was never central to core orthodoxy suddenly assumes outsized importance. "

    I'm not saying I disagree, but I am wondering what is the basis for this assertion that you are operating under? It will help me to understand the issue better if you clarify that. How do we determine one way or the other whether the claim that avos kept the whole Torah was essential or "necessary" to old time Judaism?

    And given that that's the case (pending your explanation), why was this claim actually made in the gemara at all, not only by those espousing it but by the generations of editors who left it there and sealed it after many years?

  10. So what does this leave us with?

    If we don't follow Krochmal's method, we are being dishonest and believing in fairy tales. But if we do follow his method, we have to take it to its logical conclusion which in terms of modern scholarship leaves us on the doorstep of multiple authorship without a paddle. So we are basically finished as Jews?

  11. I think I will do a post sometime soon on Toroscha Sha'ashui and Patetaya d'Orysa. Good idea!

  12. A very good idea. But bear in mind though that it's very hard to change the way people think, and it is important (at least for me) to find ways of reaching people and carving a space for them rather than bludgeoning them. See Marc Shapiro's recent posts on Seforim about R. Kook's acknowledgment that there must be ways of teaching Torah to modern, Western man.



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