Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thank You Torah Temimah!

I was looking at the Torah Temimah over Shabbat, which cites passages in the Talmud where verses in the parsha appear, and offers some commentary on the Talmudic statements. Devarim 28:46-47, in the middle of the infamously long section of curses, says: "They (the aforementioned curses) will be a sign and a wonder upon you, and upon your descendents, forever. Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and with gladness of heart, from an abundance of everything."

About this verse, the Torah Temimah cites Arachin (Erchin) 11a: "Where do we derive the requirement of the song (shira) of the Levites from the Torah?... Rav Matna said: From here - 'Because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and with gladness of heart.' What service is done with joy and gladness of heart? You must say it is song."

Now, there's nothing whatsoever about Devarim 28:47 which by any stretch of meaning would point to the Levi'im or their song. It's obvious that Chazal had in mind the joy and significance of the shira (singing), and one of the sages looked at this pasuk, made a mental association to the Levi'im, and eventually it made its way into the pages of the Talmud. In other words, there IS NO reference to the Levi'im singing in the Torah. But there IS a tradition about the singing, and for whatever reason (actually we'll see the Torah Temimah's reason below) Chazal felt it was important to hang that tradition on a pasuk in the Torah.

And there's nothing wrong or disingenuous about this - so long as one is honest about it and acknowledges that it's merely a pedagogical tool. I say "merely" but I don't mean to diminish its importance. It's a fantastic teaching tool! The problem is when "frumkyte" starts to demand that we all believe that the Torah itself is telling us about shira, when clearly it's not, or that this drash is "built into" the Torah, that Rav Matna received this tradition from Sinai, when clearly many/most/all of these drashot were developed by Chazal as memory tools. Why is it such a big problem to hold this erroneous belief?
  1. Because it ups the ante on what one is required to believe in order to be considered "frum", incorrectly identifying people who don't believe it as "heretics". 
  2. Because it's not true even from a traditional Torah standpoint, and why should we encourage a misconception of Torah? 
  3. Because when you feed people notions that are untenable, the mind starts to regurgitate, and it's things like this which make people roll their eyes at the Torah tradition and make them want to distance themselves from it.
But you don't have to take my word about drashot being pedagogical tools created by Chazal. Take it from the Torah Temimah (R. Baruch Halevi Epstein) himself!
"We have already written a number of times in our treatise about the question of Aggadic drashot (interpretations) like these, where the intent of Chazal is not to explain the plain meaning of the text [and] to instruct regarding this interpretation literally. Because the truth is that no Scripture ever goes out of its plain meaning. Rather it is that the method of Chazal in holy [writings] is to juxtapose (l'hasmich) every matter that is received [in the tradition] and pass it down from generation to generation using some word(s) in the text of the Torah, so that this matter will have a hint or sign [in the text]. Because according to the law it is forbidden to write down matters within the Oral Torah, and therefore it is good and proper to give each matter that is taught in the Oral Torah a hint and an associated-text (asmachta) in order to remember the matter, since this is the nature of memory, where if there is something with which to associate a matter, it will remain in one's memory..."
That's the Torah Temimah's comment on the Gemara in Erchin. Chazal didn't want to write down oral traditions like the shira of the Levi'im, so they attached such traditions to the Torah text. The system of drashot was a fantastic creative project of associative thinking and memorization techniques. Thank you Chazal for creating it, and thank you Torah Temimah for saying it straight!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Teshuva for Believers and Non-Believers

I was reading Rabbeinu Bachya's commentary on Ki Tetzei over Shabbat. Devarim 22:1 talks about "hashavat aveida", returning a lost object to its owner. R. Bachya puts it simply: "Each person should desire the benefit/welfare of his friend." And he goes on to say:
This is what is meant by: "You may not hide yourself" [so as to ignore the lost object and not return it]. Don't understand this as referring to a lost object only; rather this is the law regarding ... all the other benefits that a person has the ability to bring to his friend, or to remove and push off damage from him. He is obligated in all of them, as it says: "You should love your neighbor like yourself."
It struck me after reading this that regardless of whether you're an atheist or a believer, THIS IS WHAT IT'S ALL ABOUT Jewishly - namely, simply wanting the best for one another, not wanting to see them suffer, and actually taking action to improve one another's welfare, and to prevent them from incurring harm. And it has nothing to do with the issue of "belief". If we have any commitment or love for Judaism, THIS is the foundation. This needs to be the focus, the essence of our spirituality as Jews.

And unfortunately we look around and see that this is very often not the case. Disappointingly, we see that religious Jews all too often lack this basic foundation - being so hyper-focused on externals, whether relating to dress code or minute details of this or that ritual halacha, far more focused on perfecting "their mitzvah" and gaining "their Olam Haba" (or simply caught up in everyday life) than they are on desiring the benefit/welfare of people around them. It's not that frum Jews are any worse than others in this regard, but someone who is truly "frum" should positively excel in the area of concern for others. They should conduct themselves as if this is their very reason for being. Love for one another should ooze out of their pores. Because THAT is what it means to be religious. That is what it means to thwart the human tendency toward self-interest at the expense of others, the tendency that makes kids cruel to one another, and which makes adults look at one another in the street as "noise", people in the way, ahead of us in line, taking up space and resources, or as means to ends. If we don't combat that tendency and start looking at each other as people whose well-being we genuinely we care about, what exactly have we accomplished? How have we evolved or matured, and how can we possibly think of ourselves as "spiritual"?

But I bring this up not just to harp on frum Jews who aren't getting it right. I also have to say I'm disappointed in the skeptical "community" for often being shameless offenders in this regard. Not only is the tone of discourse routinely used in blogs and comment sections highly disrespectful, devoid of sensitivity, filled with flippant, sneering and cutting remarks, but there doesn't even seem to be an awareness that there's anything wrong with it! It has so become the norm that no one bats an eyelash at it, let alone speaks up and rejects it as immature, mean-spirited, and not in keeping with our ideals. There's no "conversational pressure" against it. And again, it's not as if the skeptical Jewish community is worse than others - indeed there's no corner of the internet where you don't see people ripping one another apart with shameless abandon.

I'm suggesting here that when we post comments, we try to remember that we're speaking to another human being. And if we want to think of ourselves as mature, sensitive, spiritual, evolved people, we should be every bit as concerned with that person's benefit, their physical and emotional well-being, as we are with the point we're trying to make. If we're in that head-space, how on earth would we say something designed to make them feel bad, feel stupid? Yes, there's a place to disagree - of course there is. And there's a place sometimes to be sharp. But as I've said before, people are more important than ideas. So we can try to destroy an idea, but don't destroy the person in order to kill the idea. That's a big mistake.

I'm reminded of a Gemara I saw recently, in Berachot 10a. There were some hooligans in Rabbi Meir's neighborhood, and he davened that they should die. His wife Bruria chastised him that he should daven that they do teshuva, quoting a pasuk that "sins will cease and there will be no more evildoers" - it says "sins" should cease, not "sinners". So Rabbi Meir davened for them, and they did teshuva. (Happy ending - halavai it were that easy!) Point being, even for the lousy people of the world, we should desire their well-being rather than their destruction. "Kal v'chomer" (all the more so) for the vast majority of decent people out there, we need to desire their well-being. We need to act on that desire, and we need to be vigilant about it.

And I'll say further. If Jewish skeptics/atheists don't conduct themselves in a refined, dignified, evolved, sensitive manner, all this does is feed into the idea that without God to tell us how to behave, we become a bunch of "behemas" (animals). So it's particularly incumbent upon such people to make a statement that this is NOT the case. How? By demonstrating that it's not the case, with our words and our actions. Yes, it is possible to be rational and uncompromising in matters of truth, AND to be of the finest character, highly sensitive and evolved. It is possible to reject the part of Torah that is worthy of being rejected, AND to enthusiastically embrace and fulfill the part of Torah that is worthy of being fulfilled and embraced.

That's the teshuva we all need to work on - skeptic and believer alike, Jew and non-Jew alike. So with that, a happy and productive Elul to one and all!