Monday, November 29, 2010

Clear Thinking Jews

Probably by this time everyone has seen the viral YouTube “Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort” in which the haredi “right” is being taken to task by the orthodox “left” by citing the Talmud Yuma (28b) as well as taking a pot shot at Rabbi Elyashiv. This YouTube making the case for the religious “right” at the expense of clear thinking and rational people brings to mind the fantastic midrash of Yeshivat Shem V’ever. According to midrashic sources this was a yeshiva established by Noach’s son and grandson Shem and Ever. Some sources have it being established in Tzfat, others in Ber Sheva. The story alleges that all the Avot studied there, something akin to American dynastic families studying at Harvard or one of the other Ivy League Universities. Surprisingly these sources are disappointingly sketchy about what Avraham and Isaac studied there, but gratefully more detailed regarding Jacob who studied there from the age of 63 for 14 years (Accordingly he was 77 when he finally got to Lavan’s ranch, then had to work 14 more years before marrying Rachel). Imagine that. According to the Midrash he knew he was going to Lavan’s house so he needed to fortify himself with special torah that would serve as a prophylactic to Lavan’s bad influences. Hard to fathom, but that’s what our sages would have us believe. Reviewing the midrashic sources on Yeshiva Shem V’ever one has to wander what the curriculum was like. What texts did they study? How did they manage to get the copies of the texts and in what format were they made available to the “bochrim”? Were there lectures or was it autodidactic? How long was the day of study? What did they eat and were there stipends? How much was tuition and were scholarships provided to all or just the needy. How many students studied there?

This midrash came to mind when I viewed the YouTube in which the protagonist challenges the “ben torah” with some very logical questions: If Jacob knew the whole torah then he shouldn’t have been upset when Joseph was sold to the caravan, because he knew the end before it unfolded? What’s more amazing then this sophisticated YouTube is the defensive posturing from the frum community. Their response is as phantasmagoric as the story of Yeshiva Shem V’ever. In actuality they can’t really mount a coherent defense against the thesis position of the YouTube. Attempting to do so is a failed attempt at weaving a web of obfuscation. One example of this is justifying Jacob’s marriage to two sisters (by dismissing the accusations) due to their conversion prior to the marriages. Utterly silly but should one inquire as to the nature of the conversion? Was it “kosher” according to all the sages or would there have been some reservations by some on the very far right. No clear thinking Jew can support this kind of approach to Torah or to our tradition.

Then there are others who because they consider themselves more enlightened and don’t understand these midrashim literally, but allegorically, sort of a means by which appoint has to be made. So the midrash might weave an incredibly outlandish story with the intention that a lesson is to be learned from it. There are many sages who held this position but somehow became muddled when they got into the details. For example how was it possible that the Avot observed all the commandments? These rationalists would say, perhaps not all the commandments were observed by the Avot but certainly all of the ethical commandments were? Really? And how did they know what the ethical commandments were? And did they observe only d’oreisah or also d’rabanan? Other “clear headed” sages suggest that the Avot observed the commandments only when in Israel. Not withstanding the issue of borders, they introduced an incredible and revolutionary position that the commandments were only given for use in Israel. Does that apply today too?

Clearly, this YouTube hit a raw nerve. Rather than reevaluate with some serious study some of their positions, the right wing assumed the following position:
“The overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold the maximalist position and this is the general position that should be taught in Torah institutions. When one is involved in kiruv or deals with people who have been raised in secular environments, it is the opinion of this author that all three positions should be presented.”
In other words perpetuate the absurd and obfuscate the truth by citing different positions of the sages: maximalist position, minimalist positions and midlevel positions. All of course cannot and do not address the concerns of clear thinking Jews. Beyond trying to sell a muddled message and vision to the clear thinking, when under attack they do what they know best: circle the wagons with more fences and double talk.