The Yeshiva Bochur YouTube and its Discontents
No, I don’t applaud the now-infamous YouTube– but I do not agree with much of the criticism leveled against it.
To co-opt the phraseology of another writer on the topic, I am a “maximalist” regarding the reverence and honor due to the Avos. I’ve gotten into heated and public debate with those who saw the Avos as just ordinary people who happened to be the first kids on the Jewish block. The Avos are the very foundation of Am Yisrael, the ones who uncovered certain midos of HKBH and made them part of our world. We invoke their names in davening not because of their primacy, but because of their spiritual accomplishment.
My beef with the video is that it was predictable that some people would – quite inappropriately, I believe – see it as a swipe at the Avos, or at those who choose to take the words of Chazal literally unless guided to an allegorical approach by a Torah giant of the past. We ought not to take chances and liberties with the respect owed to the Avos, or to large numbers of yerei’im u-sheleimim. The video was creative, smart, and fun – but I would not have the risked the reaction.
I almost always find Rabbi Yair Hoffman’s writing to be intelligent and engaging. Jews were perhaps destined to disagree with each other; on this issue I will have to disagree with several of his points. I don’t believe that the video denigrated either the Avos or those who take the “maximalist” approach to Chazal in general. The target of the video was people who do not stop and think. If I were asked for input into planned additions to the cardinal sins of Torah Judaism, I too would put disengaging the brain on the short list.
There is not a single question addressed by the skeptic in the video that has not been asked by talmidei chachamim of the past, starting with the question of how Yaakov could marry two sisters if he kept the entire Torah. (Ramban’s answer – that he observed Torah law only inside Israel, but not outside – is well known. Fewer know of the Maharal’s approach: the Avos only kept mitzvos aseh/ affirmative obligations, but were not bound by any prohibitions.) Those who tended towards taking Chazal literally were faced with more questions than those given to allegorical interpretation. They met the challenge and answered the questions.
Now, some people might find some of those answers elegant, and others find them strained and unattractive. The point is that talmidei chachamim asked the questions. They were aware of the difficulties, and had grappled with them. The yeshiva bochur in the video, however, meets every question with – silence. He shows a triumphalist attitude towards his interlocutor, but he has never thought of the questions, and is left speechless. The video, I believe, mocks those who uncritically absorb without stopping to think of the implications and the difficulties. Torah is too complex and too precious to treat that way.
Moreover, the so-called “traditionalist” approach (a misnomer, since the older works dealing with aggada – and probably the majority who have directly considered the issue – take an allegorical approach) works best for people with a surfeit of emunah peshutah. By now, most of us wish we had a way to mass-produce and bottle that precious commodity. Alas, we are hearing more and more of our children ask more challenging questions about more fundamental issues at earlier ages. Three things are guaranteed to turn them off: angrily suppressing questions, not validating their questions, and giving them bad answers. The video not only raises a good point, it should sound an alarm. If that yeshiva bochur winds up teaching in a classroom, we don’t want our children to be there.
I find the word “maximalist” problematic when linked to a more literalist position. I understand where Rabbi Hoffman is coming from, but I think there is much merit in reversing the designations of maximalist and minimalist. At least the Maharal believed so. Contrary to the assumption of those unfamiliar with Maharal, he did not help the student of Chazal by successfully allegorizing difficult ma’amorei Chazal. More often than not, he allegorized as well the passages that do not strike people as difficult! He did so because, he says, Chazal’s words are far more profound than people think. Taking their words at face value obscures the deeper meaning contained in them. That meaning becomes accessible only when you uncover their allegorical sense. To Maharal, the allegorists are the maximalists in wringing out the most enlightenment from the words of Chazal, while the literalists are the minimalists!
The swipe at YU (included in the Voz is Neias version, but not in the Five Towns text) will hopefully not cause too much grief to bnei Torah from that institution. They should see it as a compliment. After all, Rabbi Hoffman argues that those involved in kiruv should present three different general approaches to Chazal. Graduates of YU can pride themselves in having access to rabbeim who have experience with, and can offer guidance in, all three of those approaches. If people versed in Emunos V’Deos, Moreh Nevuchim et al (not to mention the works of figures like R Dovid Tzvi Hoffman and the Sridei Aish) are magidei shiur in American yeshivos, their identities are being hidden very well from the rest of us.
Rabbi Hoffman writes that “the overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold of the maximalist position.” I hope that he doesn’t mean that they hold the maximalist position in general, not just regarding the particular issue of the Avos observing all of the Torah. That would put them in the first category that the Rambam talks about in his introduction to Perek Chelek. (About those literalists Rambam writes that instead of the nations praising us as a “wise and comprehending nation is this great people,” they instead point to “a foolish and degraded nation is this small people,” for believing inanities.) More likely, they hold what the Rambam writes in his Introduction to Mishnah, that Chazal hid their true intention in parables and stories, so that children would be able to grasp them. The plain-sense meaning of Chazal is important to reach the greatest number of people. We should not confuse them with sophistication that they cannot understand. (Even in this there are exceptions. R Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l spoke many years ago to a yeshiva principals’ convention. He mentioned the dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether the “new king” at the beginning of Shemos was a different person, or merely the same monarch who had adopted radically new policies. R Yaakov opined that neither of the two opinions had a mesorah as to the “facts.” Rather, they disputed whether a person who had benefited from someone as greatly as Paroh had from Yosef could later turn on his legacy completely, and bathe in the blood of his descendants. The dispute was about the human personality, not about the succession of Egyptian rulers. One principal asked R Yaakov whether this was the way to teach children in elementary school classrooms, and he responded affirmatively!) We should also, however, remember the next words of the Rambam, which state that the early, literal approach to Chazal is justified until such time as their minds mature and they can understand the nimshal – the real, deeper intent of Chazal!
The “maximalist” position that Rabbi Hoffman detects may also reflect a different subtlety. It is difficult to believe that those with whom he is acquainted are simply unaware of just how many in our mesorah were not literalists. That would be tragic. To believe that they are aware of them, and have “paskened” that they are now to be considered beyond the pale would be even worse. To take shitos of beloved rishonim and acharonim and ban them from use would be unparalleled in Torah history. (The words I have heard from my own rabbeim about such a position are the closest to “expletive deleted” that you can get from talmidei chachamim.)
The bottom line is that I fully agree with Rabbi Hoffman. He states that all three of the positions he culls from Torah literature should be presented to certain people. We simply disagree about who those people are. I believe that in communities that are hermetically sealed off from outside exposure, it might be that only the “maximalist” approach should be used, in order to preserve the beautiful presence of emunah peshutah. Those of us reading the Five Towns Jewish Journal and Vos Iz Neias online, however, may need more weapons in our holster against the inevitable depredations of Amalek, whose modus operandi is the creation of safek, of doubt and uncertainty, in our minds. If we take the time to think, unlike the cartoon bochur of the video, Hashem will surely guide us to the proper insights from within Chazal.