Reading Sefer Bereshis through an Open Orthodox Lens

When studying the Torah’s narratives – especially those in Sefer Bereshis – there are two key points to keep in mind:

1.      The centrality of Torah She-b’al Peh, and the approaches, thoughts and attitudes of classical Meforshim, in understanding the text

2.      The flow and development of the narratives, and of the personalities involved, including how the Torah views and treats these personalities later; this is a central component of “peshat” – “ein Mikra yotzei miydei peshuto” – Scripture must (normally) have a plain and literal meaning, with a logical flow, independent of homiletical interpretation or anything else.

For any yeshiva student, the primacy of Torah She-b’al Peh when learning Chumash is a given. It is well known that Rav Soloveitchik advised the Rabbinical Council of America to decline involvement with the Jewish Publication Society’s Bible translation project due to the absence of Torah She-b’al Peh interpretation/commentary in the planned works.

Moreover, the concept of Mesorah stands at the forefront of how Torah is to be learned. The values, the assumptions, the way to ask a question (and the ability to determine what is indeed a question), the hierarchy accorded to various Meforshim and references, and so much more, are all bound by a sense of Mesorah. We know that a citation by Rashi, or even an extra word by him, implies something important. With other commentaries, such is often not the case. This, and the entire Mesorah of how to learn Torah, are conveyed from rebbe to talmid, as part of the Oral Tradition.

Yet there is also a far simpler yardstick that must be used for Talmud Torah: the logical flow and development of the Torah’s accounts and the personalities involved – “peshat”. Individuals of corrupt character are punished, unless they repent; such individuals’ sin is not disregarded, and these individuals certainly do not rise to positions of leadership with God’s blessings if they have committed serious misdeeds and did not engage in teshuva. Similarly, when one takes action in the Name of God and appears to be rewarded for that action, or is immediately thereafter blessed or treated with prominence in the Torah, it is clear that the action was correct and just.

The above flow and development concepts are basic logic and are very elementary, and in truth they apply to all literature, as the case may be; only one who fails to read with coherence can err in these matters. When a character who acts heroically and is thereafter presented in a positive light by the author is instead viewed by a reader as having done evil in the eyes of the author, that reader has misunderstood. This is very basic and need not be explained.

It is thus with great dismay that we continue to encounter “divrei Torah”, by self-declared progressive Orthodox clergy, which not only evidence an incognizance of Mesorah, but which do violence to basic reading comprehension and to common sense.

Yesterday, I received one such “d’var Torah”, entitled Why Jacob Cursed Two of His Sons, freshly published by a peace activist/Open Orthodox rabbi and posted by Torat Chayim Rabbis. This “d’var Torah” posits that Yaakov Avinu was punished severely for “cruelly deceiving his father (Yitzchak)” in obtaining the Berachos:

So to at least some degree Jacob shares guilt with Shimon and Levi for their two great evils. And to a certain extent he was tricked by his sons into the inadvertent role that he played in these tragedies.

What did Jacob do to deserve this? Perhaps the cruel fate that befalls him is what our sages called “measure for measure” punishment. For whose example were his sons following when they repeatedly deceived their father if not that of Jacob himself, who impersonated his sibling Esau to wrest control of his father Isaac’s blessing! The son who cruelly deceived his father but once, is he himself deceived by his sons not once but twice.

Deception comes home to haunt. Once perpetrated, it perpetuates itself. A vicious cycle engulfs the family, from which one may extricate himself only with the greatest of difficulty. Will the tragedy be repeated in our own families, or will we learn the lesson that the Torah is endeavoring to teach?

Putting aside the fact that there is no Mesorah for the message of this “d’var Torah”, does it make sense that Yaakov was awarded the Berachos, which marked the commencement of his development into the next of the Avos, as part of a cruel sin on his part, which the Torah somehow glaringly overlooks, and for which even his mother, who instigated the scheme, is not censured? Only one who cannot read text – or, more accurately, one who has an agenda which he uses the text to advance – could proffer such ideas.

Another such Torah analysis by an Open Orthodox rabbi, published last month in Lehrhaus, suggests that Avrohom Avinu wrongly failed to share with Sarah the news that she would give birth, due to his lack of faith in the prophecy from God about the matter:

Apparently, Avraham didn’t act on the Divine promise. He never shared God’s word with his spouse, let her know anything in their future was about to change, or tried to conceive with her. Apparently, Avraham never believed that which God swore to him.      

As with the earlier “d’var Torah” about Yaakov, not only is irreverence displayed – for we have no record in our Mesorah or Meforshim of such lack of faith in a Divine oath or prophecy – but the sheer dearth of logic must be noted as well, for even if one does not go with the Masoretic interpretation of Avrohom’s laughter upon being told by God that Sarah would bear Yitzchak (Bereshis 17:17, with Onkelos, Rashi, Ramban, et al), and one understands that Avrohom laughed out of temporary incredulity, the text tells us that immediately after this prophecy (which commenced with the mitzvah of Bris Milah), Avrohom set forth to circumcise himself and his household, in acceptance and fulfillment of the prophecy. Furthermore, we do not find that Avrohom was shocked to see that Sarah actually conceived, having rejected the Divine promise thereof, according to the writer of the above article. Nor do we find that Avrohom was punished for denying God’s Word. Again, an agenda of fault-finding has tarnished the ability to read the Torah coherently.

In a pretty upsetting “d’var Torah” on Parshas Vayishlach, posted earlier this month by Yeshivat Maharat, the author addresses the relationship of Yaakov and Eisav, writing:

Yaakov’s mistrust extended to an almost grotesque overprotection of his family… Yaakov’s mistrust and servility towards the powerful earned a measure-for-measure punishment, and his turning away from an other he knew and with whom he ought to have reconciled caused him to be delivered into the hand of an unknown other – The land of Egypt – where he and his descendants truly felt the heavy hand of mistrust and slavery.

While the parasha’s account of the meeting of Yaakov and Esau is cautiously optimistic and we can certainly find inspiration in Yaakov’s ability to overcome his fear in wrestling the angel, we can also appreciate that this courage had limits and when it came to a real personal encounter where he had to struggle with the known and not the unknown, he could not fully rise to the occasion, failing both to trust nor apologize.

I wish us all the courage to be able to wrestle with the unknown, as Yaakov did, and the blessing to be able to fully reconcile even with the known, as he failed to do.

Aside from the author’s disparagement of Yaakov Avinu, which is a real problem, nowhere in the Torah or in commentaries do we find that Yaakov should have reunited with Eisav and apologize to him. In fact, Yaakov’s strategy for dealing with Eisav, as presented in Parshas Vayishlach, is recommended by Chazal and Meforshim as the eternal prototype for handling confrontations with foes of our people. Yaakov is not faulted in Parshas Vayishlach or elsewhere else in the Torah for his mannerism while encountering Eisav, and in fact, the Torah refers to Yaakov as being “shalem” (whole), implying blessing upon him, after completing his rendezvous with Eisav. To read the flow of the text as one of gross wrongdoing on Yaakov’s part simply makes no sense. (The author of this “d’var Torah” invokes a Gemara [AZ 8b] about Roman persecution of the Jewish People, related to a passage in Parshas Vayishlach, as purported proof for Yaakov’s flawed interaction with Eisav in the parshah; however, that Gemara says nothing of the sort.)

Another Yeshivat Maharat “d’var Torah”, entitled Listening to Abuse, which was published last month as part of the MeToo# campaign, presents Yitzchak as traumatized by Avrohom as a result of the Akeidah:

Last week’s parasha ended in trauma. We don’t know what happened to Yitzhak after the akeda. We saw him tied up, on a mizbeach. And then we hear about how Avraham sacrificed the ram instead, and God blessed Avraham…

This is a picture of Yitzchak out in the field, talking to himself. He was hurting, and he himself was his only resource up to that moment. Avraham, a participant in the traumatic incident, couldn’t be of help…

In this week’s parasha, we see two characters who break Yitzhak’s isolation: Rivka and Yishmael. 

We live in a world full of hurting, traumatized people. Bereishit itself is a book full of people who are hurting, and who hurt each other…

So despite the fact that Avrohom Avinu is granted immense blessing for perpetuity upon passing the test of the Akeidah, and despite the fact that the Torah records nothing whatsoever about Yitzchak’s “trauma” and “isolation”, the author of this “d’var Torah” has a very interesting story to tell. Sadly, it can be best described as creative writing, serving an agenda that is anything but fidelity to the words of the Torah.

These “divrei Torah” did not emerge in a vacuum.

One of the primary teachers of the above authors has written that Moshe Rabbeinu totally mishandled the Korach rebellion – despite God’s miraculous punishment of Korach and his followers at the words of Moshe, and not even a hint of criticism in the Torah toward Moshe for how he dealt with Korach. On the contrary, we read that Moshe merited to receive blessing and prophecy from God after Korach was vanquished. Where is the logic in this “d’var Torah”?

This same teacher wrote about Yitzchak Avinu:

What stands out in this story is that there is one person who has learned from the past, and it is not Yitzchak… Yitzchak has not only failed to learn that the Plishtim – as opposed to those in Mitzrayim – would not take a woman who was his wife, but he also seems to be acting almost as a reflex, without conscious thought. 

This rabbi continues in his criticism of Yitzchak, portraying Yitzchak for several paragraphs as a thoughtless and foolish person. The fact that Yitzchak is blessed by God after these incidents and is granted promises of immense success, reflecting God’s happiness with him and his path, somehow eluded the mind of the author of this “d’var Torah”. Again, the logical flow of the text is disregarded when one is instead focused on the condemnable agenda of finding fault with the Torah’s greatest personalities.

Another prominent Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva, writing in Lehrhaus, first cites Rav Soloveitchik’s explanation of the Akeidah as the paramount example of surrender to God, but then rejects this approach:

As appealing as this interpretation is as a corrective to to the excesses of romantic individualism, it divorces religion from the most refined human sentiments and forces a choice between them. It undermines self-confidence and autonomy and represses the moral voice. This leaves sensible people vulnerable to the authority wielded by those less worthy than the Rav. We are enjoined to sacrifice our instincts and intuitions on the altar of divine revelation. By invoking the absolute authority of divine revelation and its derivative—the text—over our own moral sentiments, the actual outcome is to establish the authority of interpreters of the text over our autonomous sense of right and wrong. This is because what is divinely revealed by the text is a product of human interpretation; it is only as “good” as the interpreter.Sadly, we are all too familiar with instances in which Torah interpreters attempt to serve us the fatal poison, invoking the Torah in support of morally repugnant positions.  Is it really safe to jettison our own sense of right and wrong in the face of these interpretations?…

This approach also begets manifestations of moral insensitivity that are less overtly injurious but, for that reason, more pervasive. The authoritarian reading of the Akeidah has subtly led to intolerance, self-righteousness, and arrogance. According to this reading, the Akeida settled, once and for all, the question of whether to follow anthropocentric, subjective morality or the divine command. We can now sleep soundly at night in the secure knowledge that when we are faced with similar challenges and choose obedience to the law , we are following the will of God as we are supposed to do. This orientation has resulted in a dulling and distrust of moral sensitivities in favor of what is deemed to be God’s revealed will and identified with “The Halakhah,” “The Torah,” or “The Gedolim.” Often, when moral considerations are raised in halakhic discussions, they are labelled and dismissed as Christian, secular humanist, western, or just plain “goyish” influence. “Authentic Judaism,” the argument goes, “has the Torah, and we know what to do. The Akeidah teaches us that eternal lesson.”

A revised, convoluted reinterpretation of the Akeidah is thereupon presented by this rabbi, in which the Torah’s narrative of the event is twisted into a pretzel. (This same Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has previously defended and even promoted the denial of the historicity of the Torah and its communication to Moshe at Sinai; please see here for elaboration. Another Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has likewise written that the Torah was not dictated by God to Moshe. Based on Biblical Criticism and this Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva’s own reading of the Chumash, he professes that “there is no other option but to let go of the narrative of the dictation… ‘The Torah speaks in the language of human beings.’ We can understand this statement as merely a comment on the literary style of our Torah, but it can also be understood in a broader and more fundamental way.” This Open Orthodox rosh yeshiva has also posited that one need not accept the Torah’s narrative of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim as historical fact. )

Another Open Orthodox rabbi, with a similar orientation, writes that Avrohom Avinu actually failed the Akeidah. This notion, repeated many times by Open Orthodox leadership, is wholly inconsistent with the Torah’s text and our tradition, for why would God reward Avrohom with abundant praise and blessing at the conclusion of Akeidah, and why is the Akeidah invoked as the central theme for merit in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, if it was a wrongdoing and a failure? It makes no sense, and it manifests gross distortion of the Torah to serve an agenda.

It pains me to see people explain Torah in such ways, devoid of Mesorah and reverence and detached from the logical development of the narratives and their meaning.

Let us learn Torah with Mesorah, awe and an objective goal and trajectory. As we conclude Sefer Bereshis, let us come away with a sense of the viruosity of the Avos and Imahos and their progeny, and an appreciation for the profundity and sanctity of the narratives. Let us realize that the true Toras Chaim is one that ignites our yiras shamayim and ahavas Hashem, and that we are but dwarfs who are divinely gifted with accounts of monumental greatness which we can barely aspire to emulate. Let us be infused with a spirit of reverence, love of Torah, and last but not least, common sense.

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85 Responses

  1. dr. bill says:

    i much prefer divrei torah on the parsha that explain even our mesorah’s most midrashic views, like that of James Kugel, versus those that offer new or different insights. on the other hand, many commentators from Rishonim like Rashbam, whose comments often stand in opposition to the mesorah, to Rav Mecklenburg, whose is not always able to find traditional support, offer valued insight. i find that many of the drashot are less commentary than another strongly rooted tradition in traditional Judaism, a rabbi linking his message to a torah text. the message may be arguable, but that is a different issue.

    • Mycroft says:

      The Rashbam certainly advocated pshat in Chumash counter to mesorah. Saadiah Gaon and Rambam did likewise see eg their opinion on Bilaams donkey speaking. The red line issue has been acceptance of Halachik system.
      Ire your comment on linking a message to a Torah text. It is fundamental that any decent darshan can link any message to that weeks Parsha,looking through midrashim on Psukim and making a link is a sic, the real test as one Rabbi told me is taking any Pasuk and linking to any message…
      BTW wo parsing words on Rabi Gordimer’s essay and Perushim and Avos behavior, one could make an argument that much of the approach of SRH on the Avos would be inconsistent with this post

      • Steve Brizel says:

        There are mant Mfarshim.both before and after RSRH who critiqued aspects of thev lives and decisions of the Avos.

      • nt says:

        There is a big difference between suggesting a new pshat because it seems to fit better with the simple reading of the passuk and suggesting a new pshat that is a harder read in the passuk. Many Rishonim, Rashi prominently among them, were happy to say that a specific statement of Chazal was not meant to be the simple pshat and to suggest their own interpretation.
        And many darshanim are happy to say a dvar Torah that is not simple pshat as a way to get their message across.
        It’s different when someone says something that is not at all the simple pshat and yet claims that it is. That is just a mistake. Obviously, occasionally reasonable people can disagree about which reading is more likely, but sometimes, especially in the cases R’ Gordimer cites, it is hard to understand how someone would come up with that reading. And when their bizarre reading leads them to harshly criticize the Avos, one starts to wonder if they have an agenda.
        And it also makes a difference when the new pshat goes against the entire body of tradition by assigning blame where the simple reading of the passuk and all of Chazal indicate the opposite. (This goes both ways: see the Chazon Ish’s sharp critique of those who say the Jews of the First Temple period were not actually idol-worshippers.)
        An interesting example is the Malbim’s critique of the Abarbanel’s explanation of the incident of Dovid and Bas Sheva. Chazal say he did not commit actual adultery. The Abarbanel rejects that, and the Malbim criticizes the rejection because in his reading, the verses and the story imply that there was no actual adultery.

      • Shades of Gray says:

        “Chazon Ish’s sharp critique of those who say the Jews of the First Temple period were not actually idol-worshippers”

        Where is this Chazon Ish, and is he critiquing anyone specific?

      • nt says:

        I tried to find a link on HebrewBooks but no luck. It is in his Igros, I think on the section for Torah. I vaguely remember it as being #318 or 319. I don’t own a copy so it would take some time to find it.
        He seems to be responding to someone who tried to make the case. I’ve heard some speculation/rumors as to whom his letter is addressed to but nothing definite. I hope that helps!

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Take a look at CI’s Maamar on Matan Torah which is printed after Hilcos Sefiras HaOmer in any standard edition of CI, where CI posits when and why certain mitzvos were given at Sinai, Ohel Moed and Arvos Moav.

      • dr. bill says:

        i agree that new interpretations with an obvious agenda are not close to my cup of tea. were that rabbi gordimer’s point, i would agree. but it was not. A chashevah litivishe rov, now in olam ha-emet, used to make that point about the satmar rabbi’s interpretations of Ramban; in my mind, the agenda was even more obvious.

        for a breathtaking account of the whole incident between David and Batsheva, see Halberthal’s last book on Samuel. some of the insights are insightful, original and compelling.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    As early as the 1970’s, there was a rash of intentionally subversive new “midrashim” from Jews with an agenda, so today’s attempts at the same do fall into a tradition of sorts. It seems as if every group of rebels needs to clothe itself in familiar terminology and literary style, but with a wicked twist.

  3. Tal Benschar says:

    “The fact that Yitzchak is blessed by God after these incidents and is granted promises of immense success, reflecting God’s happiness with him and his path, somehow eluded the mind of the author of this “d’var Torah””

    Or he holds he is a bar plugta on God.

  4. dr. bill says:

    i am aware and bothered by the Rav ztl’s opposition to the JPS bible project. perhaps that was in an era where the conservative movement was still a threat, but that may just be apologetics on my part.

    nonetheless, now that it is done, using it today is a different story. there is certainly what/much to object to; but like most things, there is also something to applaud. their Yonah is spectacular despite some observations that some might find troubling. one of my favorite examples, which i will use next few week in a shiur, is a rabbinic interpretation opposed by some Rishonim and others as subverting the simple meaning of the passuk. The JPS translation supports Chazal’s reading through a clever literary approach, which I had not seen previously.

    otoh, for many years my sense about Esther was influenced by Prof. Bernstein ztl’s recommendation to read the Anchor (Artscroll for protestant talmidei chachamim) bible. a few years ago, the JPS Esther provided a cogent view that obliterated the Protestant approach, written by an orthodox prof. – adele Berman.

    throwing out the live baby with the bathwater or perhaps the bathwater with the dead baby. curious how many people use the version Brettler and Berman edited.

  5. Akiva Weisinger says:

    Am I to understand that peshat based commentators like (just off the top of my head) Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Haketav Veha Kabbalah, the Netziv, R. David Zvi Hoffman, R. Yaakov Kamenetsky, and R. Hirsch, to say nothing of the entirety of the output of Yeshivat Har Etzion, is not part of our mesorah? That stretches credulity and places a significant percentage of the Jewish library outside our mesorah.

    I additionally think the approach to the biblical text you describe is not only flawed in its understanding of literature (the mark of good literature is complexity, not simplicity) I think you have distorted the history of biblical interpretation for ideological ends.
    Iy”h I will write a full, sourced rebuttal on Sunday when I am not hurrying to prepare for shabbos.

    • BF says:

      Akiva is, of course correct in noting the historical fact that many of our greatest commentators developed innovative and unprecedented approaches to learning the Torah. Contemporary Haredi thinkers continue to do this while receiving no or minimal flack (cf. Rabbis Leibel Heiman and -lehavdil bein chaim lechaim – Leibel Mintzberg. I would suggest that, to take the first illustration cited in the article as an example, had the author of the dvar Torah suggested, with great trepidation and reverence, and noting that this is only a theory, that perhaps there was an element of culpability in Yaakov’s tricking his father which may have lain at the root of his own being deceived at his sons’ hands, Rabbi Gordimer would not have seen the dvar Torah as so reprehensible. Instead, the author 1] sees no need to express any misgivings about suggesting such a radical p’shat; 2] is not suggesting anything but rather knows for certain what the Torah is telling us; 3] uses irreverent language (“cruelly deceives”). I think that while the author of the dvar Torah may have inadvertently stumbled upon a truth, his attitude as well as modus operandi are unacceptable.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Pshat is important but hardly the only meanscpf parshanut especially if and when pshat either is championed as the sole means of parshanut to the exclusion of classical Mefarshim who work from the premise that Drush Remez and Sod and the views of Chazal have very valid hashkafic and.even Halachic views.we all know the comment of Rashbam at the beginning of Parshas zvayeshev yey in Pekudei and Vayikra Rashbam explicitly states that he refers all readers of his commentary to that of Rashi.

      • Mycroft says:

        Read Martin Lockshins translation of Rahbam , where I believe in his introduction he maintains that depending on the what words Rashbam starts wth he is agreeing, disagreeing, complementing him

      • Mycroft says:

        I should have stated that according to Lockshin much of Rashbam is a commentary on Rashi and then continue with his analysis depending on how Rashbam treats Rashis explanation one can tell by his opebing is he disagreeing , clarifying etc

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Dr Levines lectures are available IIRC at YU Torah.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Perhaps tou are confusing Dr Michelle Levine who teaches at SCW with Dr Michelle Friedman a pyschiateist who lectures on abuse at.YCT

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Download the courses of DrMichelle Levinecat SCW who offers views in Raashbam decidedly different than Lockshin.

      • Mycroft says:

        I googled Dr Michelle Levine and Rasbam and got nothing about her and Rashbam, then tried her and Stern College and saw a lot of lectures she gave at YCT.
        Lockshin BTW has Smicha .
        If you give a Google search that will give a PDF of her views I will read it.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Now this comment thread has referred to both Kugel and Lokshin. Truly a blog Jews can relate to.

      • Mycroft says:

        I believe along wth Rabbi Adlerstein they all lve in Jerusalem

      • Akiva Weisinger says:

        And we’re also all aware of his comment in Parshat Vayeshev where he says “I talked with my grandfather and he said that he regretted his peirush wasn’t more like mine”

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Rashbam also writescin Pekudei and Vayikra that he refers all tonthe commentary of Rashi.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Ibn Ezra quotes but rejects Karaite views. NETZIV champions the unity.of Torah Shebciav and TSBP. RSRh has manynpassages that read as if based on Ramban. R D,T Hofgman fought Bible. Crit. Emes lYaakov is s magnificent sefer . Then again if you want to learn a sefer on Chumash authored by an Acharon that is compared to that of a Rishon learn the Meshech
      Chachmah . I for one am notboverwhel.ed by thr Gush derech. I question whether Chaxal dealt in ichastic structures and in divorcing pshat from the hashkafic and halacchic contents to be derived from each pasuk. I for one find the Gush derech boring and dry question whether it supplants or supplements having textual literacy and basic understanding in Rashi Ramban Seforno Ibn Ezra Rashbam Netziv and Meshech Chachmah all of which are available in excellent editions.

      • dr. bill says:

        the word is chiastic. did chazal ever explicitly mention chiastic or some equivalent word or concept; i have not seen that demonstrated. otoh, that is not something I am even remotely versed in.
        nonetheless, anyone with reasonable mathematical training and knowledge of the structure of the trop will note, certainly after i mention it, that trop exhibits a recursive (ala Godel, Escher, Bach) nature, something that allows it to expand easily to the very long pesukim of Esther. of course chazal never specified anything like the notion of recursive; nonetheless it is present after modern examination. chiastic structures may be similar. i would find it hard to imagine that while biblical authors used the structure, chazal were entirely unaware of its existence for thousands of years.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Did Chazal employ methods of Parshanut een remotely ischastic structures et al remains the question not whether we can read thesame into the words of the Torah and Chazal.

      • Ben Waxman says:

        The Netziv was willing to quote rishonim and state that he thought a rishon’s interpretation was wrong. Chazal didn’t deal in chiastic structures but they didn’t deal with grammer either. Nor did they use Aristotelian science to interpret the Torah.

      • dr. bill says:

        chazal associated an ancient provenance with the trop. i believe i can prove conclusively the association of trop with Chazal as opposed to other Jewish streams. i would always point out the grammatical reasons for a particular trop when teaching my grandchildren to lain. in all those instances that i recall, Rashi makes a similar point without reference to trop.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Perhaps Acharonim.hav more leeeay in rejecting the offered explanation of a Rishon because Parshanut per se has no halachic consequences. In psak you also will find an Acharon or even a contemporary Posek rejecting the problematic viewcof a Rishon. A classic case would be the view attributed to Ramban re Sefiras Haomer.

      • dr. bill says:

        btw, ibn ezra also included explanation based on astrology; today some might attack that as apikorsus. ramban, who was well aware, did not choose that form of opposition.

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Ramban at times agrees and disagrees with Ibn Ezra but never views the latter as apikorsus.

      • dr. bill says:

        is there an echo in the blogosphere?

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      These OO pieces don’t engage in any of the textual analysis the great meforshim you cited above engage in? Do you have an agenda to try and protect OO social and political commentary masquerading as some kind of legitimate text-based peirush but “shtupping” it in with these classics? I cannot believe that!

  6. Ben Waxman says:

    As someone who has been following the arguments in Israel between HaKav and the Tanach b’Gova Einayim groups for some 20 years, I can state that the arguments between these two sides is nothing new. The question of whether or not it is permissible to l’hadeish devarim or is one restricted to saying over things said by previous generations (I have no idea what is the cutoff point) has been discussed at length and has generated a lot incredibly interesting writings.

    I will say that anyone thinking that for 2000 years Chachimim have restricted themselves to what the previous generations wrote is sadly mistaken. BTW, if people to read everything in the various midrashim, they’d be shocked by some of the ideas brought up.

    It very well could be that some of the drashot mentioned here are simplistic, forced, or poor readings of the text. If that is the case, there is little to worry about. Anyone who turns a drasha into an editorial won’t garner many followers. However, that isn’t the point. The point is that people have the right to find new meanings in the text.

    Two final points:

    1) Anyone wanting to see the two approaches to how Torah can interpreted in these two radically different ways can view a talk given by Rav Bazaq (Har Etzion) and Rav Kashtiel (Yeshivat Eli) in which they explain one of the most famous stories in Nach (Isha HaShunamite). Click here. It is in Hebrew. Preview: Rav Bazaq sees the story as being highly critical of Elisha. Is that approach part of the mesorah?

    2) If anyone in America wants to try and engage American Jewry, all walks of it, he or she should try and set up a 929 like project. 929 is a learning group in which Israelis of all walks – from the most secular to chareidi, learn one chapter of Tanach a day and then write drashot. It is extremely popular. At the beginning of the project, there were growth pains, mistakes made, and adjustments to the policies of what is allowed. Even after all of that, the drashot include tons of stuff that doesn’t go by the mesoret. Yet the organizers consider the project and incredible success in that thousands of people are engaged in learning Tanach.

    • Mycroft says:

      Re 929 a Perek a day. I’Ve been using their website SE they started Joshus.

    • Bob Miller says:

      I can see the possibility of finding new faces of interpretation for the Torah narrative, but that has to be done in good faith, with proper understanding, and without a destructive agenda.

      • Akiva Weisinger says:

        So your issue is not with the actual content as much as it is your assumptions about what agenda they are trying to further? Hey, you can have disagreements with people without thinking that literally everything they do is part of a nefarious agenda.

      • Bob Miller says:

        Some, but not all, interpretations can imply an agenda. Sometimes, our knowledge about a writer can alert us to a possible agenda. Literary criticism is full of facts and speculation about the writer’s leanings.

      • Ben Waxman says:

        Actually for many of us, there is nothing more destructive than telling us that we have to replace understanding with faith.

      • Bob Miller says:

        You knew what I meant by “good faith”. But you had a point to make.

      • Ben Waxman says:

        The point is that people have been commenting on the Torah for 2000 years openly and as they saw it. Others disagreed with many of these commentaries and said so using the strongest words possible, yet without calling the former heretics.

        The question of mesorah (which a small group of people get decide what is included) is nothing more than a loyalty test. It isn’t ikkarim or belief in Torah or knowledge and depth of understanding or anything like that.

  7. Pesach Wolicki says:

    I am not a fan of the divrei torah you criticize either, however the Or Hachaim writes explicitly right at the beginning of his peirush that Mesorah does not obligate us whatsoever in giving perushim to psukim unless what we say contradicts halacha.

    • dr. bill says:

      i would tend to agree, with the possible exception of pesukim which are meant as an asmachtah not as peshat where contradicting the halakha is not a problem. of course a number of rishonim did not abide by your rule. i have never analyzed this, but i wonder if they considered the passuk as just an asmachtah?

    • Doron Beckerman says:

      This is a total falsification of what he writes – he says the exact opposite. The Mesorah is precisely what obligates us to hew to interpretive approaches; it is in their application that we have liberty as long as we remain within the confines of halachah.

      To subscribe to these approaches is bad enough; to attribute license for them to the Or Hachaim is a travesty of the highest order.

      • dr. bill says:

        tell unkelos who deviates from halakhic interpretations that some interpreters do headspins to “interpret properly,” so to speak.” in fact, the girsa has been “updated” on occasion to avoid such “problems.”

      • Doron Beckerman says:

        This, too, is a distortion. Onkelos is first and foremost a verbatim translation. Thus, the question is not in those places where he hews to that, but on the contrary, where he incorporates the halachah. (It is not that he “deviates from halakhic interpretations,” he deviates “to” them.) As R’ MM Kasher put it: “With regard to verses of Halachah, his approach in the great majority (rubba derubba) is to translate verbatim… Accordingly, it is clear that it cannot be said that Onkelos’s approach was to insert laws from the Oral Torah, for we see that he elided fundamental halachos.”

        Nesinah LaGer gives some guidelines, and in their absence, he says: “It is the way of an astute translator to maintain the words and gist without looking at the Oral Tradition.”

        In its incessant search for the (publishable) iconoclastic, anti-Mesorah angle, the academic approach will often overlook the simple and obvious.

      • dr. bill says:

        i am not talking about inserting laws. in the following examples, the halakha and his literal translation are in conflict. the HALAKHIC interpretation of chazal is ALSO LITERAL. in fact, the interpretations differ syntactically!!

        try Exodus 20:20 and 22:12. btw, when texts differ, the more likely original is ….? and while you are at it, explain why chazal did not explain 22:12 like JPS. why did chazal reject yet a third literal reading – that of the very logical JPS ? that is my very traditional (and fundamental) versus academic insight into that passuk.

        you can interpret onkelos to your heart’s content. but try the rishonim who agree with my “academic” reading. there texts and meaning are yet clearer.

        this propensity for uniformity is non-traditional. it would be simpler to answer ala the gemara – unkelos, tanna hu upalig. of course i, following academic views, date unkelos, not in the tannaic period, but around the third generation of amoraim.

      • Bob Miller says:

        When the simple and obvious can’t be recast into acceptably opaque jargon, the next best thing is to go counter-intuitive, to show us rubes how dumb we are.

  8. Gershon Josephs says:

    Not every dvar Torah is to everyone’s taste. But is it really appropriate to trash other people’s divrei Torah? If people like these kind of things and learn some moral or ethical lesson then good. If they don’t, then these kind of divrei Torah won’t have much longevity. There’s plenty of ‘acceptable’ divrei Torah from the Chassidim that weren’t based on any known mesorah, but were just as imaginative.

    • Mycroft says:

      Dr Bill:
      I thought it was clear that Onkelos is Amoraic by the few positions he takes other than translations, he appears to be living somewhere around the 300s CE.

      • dr. bill says:

        you are correct. he clearly lived before some halakhot were established. scholars see positions of that period, but i do not want to start such a discussion.

  9. iz says:

    Is Rav Goridemer critizing the Gush and R Etshalom works too?

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      You’re comparing these left-wing political and social commentaries masquerading as Torah commentary, which consistently fail to tie their ideas to the words of the Chumash text, to to the works of Gush and R’ Etshalom? Your comment is exactly the problem. This OO commentary does not even reach the standards set by Gush or similar works, but you seem to want to put them together as being the same.

      • Ben Waxman says:

        Rafael Quinoaface, like I said before, if the issue is a few young rabbis who write questionable drashot, than fine, the whole thing is a passing storm. If the question is “loyalty to the Mesoret”, that is a different kettle of chulent.

  10. Akiva Weisinger says:

    I was going to write a sourced rebuttal but I saw that R. Amnon Bazak, in his series on “Fundamental Issues in the Study of Tanakh”, tackles the main issues better than I can. Link is here, and the shiurim that cover the topics in question (ability of commentators to go against Chazal and ability of commentators to ascribe negative attributes to biblical characters) are covered in shiurim 9-11. Suffice to say there is much to rely upon, and I would appreciate if people took the time to educate themselves on the relevant sources before making public, damaging, critiques.

    Some personal, non-sourced comments.

    1) I am curious as to which “yeshiva students” R. Gordimer is referring to when he states that it is well known among Yeshiva students that this attitude towards the biblical text is clear and obvious. I suspect he is not referring to the students at Yeshivat Rabbeinu Isaac Elhanan, who have, for decades, taken mandatory Intro to Bible courses that say otherwise. It seems to me that R. Gordimer is drawing a distinction between “real yeshivos” and Modern Orthodoxy. YU, in R. Gordimer’s eyes, seems to be a halfway house between total kefirah and the One True Orthodoxy of the Haredi World, and anyone in YU is merely compromising between real Orthodoxy and their desire to watch movies. I must personally vigorously protest against such a wrongheaded and disrespectful accusation. I am not Modern Orthodox as a compromise, I am Modern Orthodox because I believe it to be God’s will that we live Torah lives informed by our knowledge of science and the humanities. To imply otherwise, and to imply that YU is not one of the “real yeshivos?” This is unacceptable.
    2. In line with point one, it should be understood that the target of this piece is not Open Orthodoxy, it is Modern Orthodoxy. It doesn’t take much research to uncover that the issues of peshat vs. derash and the sins of biblical figures have been issues that animated debates between the MO world and the Haredi world. A casual glance through back issues of Tradition Magazine or the Torah U’Madda Journal bears this out. All that’s going on here is that things that were once seen as core principles of Modern Orthodoxy are attempting to be purged by those to the right. We don’t have to stand for that.
    3. On a very personal note, the notion that seeing biblical characters as human is indicative of some level of disrespect or irreverence is deeply offensive to me. One of the most insightful things ever said to me was one of my rebbeim in high school recommending a TV show to me, lauding its writing as “The writers view the characters the same way God does”. Meaning, the show portrayed its characters as full, complex, human beings with faults and flaws but still loved them. I read the Torah as the word of God, who views his creations as they are; human beings in all their complexity, who have potential for greatness but sometimes fail to live up to it, each of which has their own attributes that make them totally unique. I believe that God is sometimes proud of his creations. And sometimes they disappoint him. But always, he loves them. And I believe that’s the attitude that the text of Tanach reflects. There is a statement from the Kotzker on the passuk “v’ha’aretz natan l’bnei adam”, to which he appended, speaking in the voice of God, “Angels, I have enough of! What I want is bnei adam, human beings”. The Torah is the record of the human beings for which God created the earth, and who he desires to follow his will. Not angels, perfect and simple, but humans, with all their complexity, their weakness, their frality, their faults….that’s who God wants to follow his will.
    To me that idea has immense power, and the idea that the characters of Tanach belong on a out of reach shelf seems both wrong and educationally wrongheaded.
    I will conclude with an excerpt from a letter from R. Hutner to a student, which makes my point better. The student had written to R. Hutner complaining that he experienced failure in his goal of higher moral and spiritual achievement.

    Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Letters and Writings, no. 128
    A failing many of us suffer is that when we focus on the ultimate level of the attainments of great people, we discuss how they are complete in this or that area while omitting mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the hand of their Creator in full-blown ideal form.

    Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara (evil inclination)? There are many such examples, to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule.

    The result of this failing is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls and slumps, he imagines himself as unworthy of being “planted in the house of Hashem.” According to this young man’s fancy, flourishing in the house of Hashem means to repose with calm spirit on “lush meadows” beside “tranquil waters” [Tehillim 23] delighting in the yetzer hatov, in the manner of the righteous delighting in the reflection of the Shechinah, with crowns on their heads, gathered in Gan Eden. And at the same time, untroubled by the agitation of the yetzer hara, along the lines of the verse “Free among the dead” [Tehillim 88:6].

    Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquility of the yetzer tov, but rather in the battle of the yetzer tov. And your precious, warm-hearted letter “testifies as one hundred witnesses” that you are a worthy warrior in the battalion of the yetzer tov. The English expression, “Lose a battle and win a war” applies. Certainly, you have stumbled and will stumble again (a self-fulfilling prophecy is not intended) and in many battles you will fall lame. I promise you, though, that after those losing campaigns you will emerge from the war with laurels of victory upon your head and with the fresh prey quivering between your teeth. Lose battles but win wars.

    The wisest of all men has said, “A just man falls seven times and rises again” [Mishlei 24:16]. Fools believe the intent of this verse is to teach us something remarkable – the just man has fallen seven times and yet he rises. But the knowledgeable are aware that the essence of the tzaddik’s rising again is by way of his seven falls. ” ‘And He saw all that He had made and behold, it was very good.’ ‘Good’: that is the yetzer tov. ‘Very good’: that is the yetzer hara” [Bereishis Rabbah 91.

    My cherished one, I clasp you to my heart, and whisper in your ear that had your letter reported on your mitzvos and good deeds, I would have said that I had received a good letter from you. As things stand, with your letter telling of slumps and falls and obstacles, I say that I have received a very good letter from you. Your spirit is storming as it aspires to greatness. I beg of you, do not portray for yourself great men as being as one with their yetzer tov. Picture rather their greatness in terms of an awesome war with every base and low inclination.

    When I read that letter it changed my life for the better. Maybe you’ve been such a tzaddik your whole life that you don’t know what it’s like to experience failure and despair because of that failure. Maybe, because you don’t have a pulpit anywhere and have no involvement in the Jewish community, you’ve never met anyone with that challenge. But for reshai’m like me, and for many of us, that’s the Torah we need to hear. Don’t take the Torah we need away from us just because you don’t know how much it means. And certainly don’t distort the history of biblical interpretation to do it!

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Living with Teiku and realizing that one has approaches but not definitive answers where earlier Mfarshim said “I dont know” is intellectually honest and a sign of great emunah.

      • Akiva Weisinger says:

        I don’t quite understand what that has to do with the point I am trying to make

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Everything. There is nothing to be ashamed of in either saying one doesnt know or in teaching Tanach without apologetics no.matter who the intended audience.

      • Akiva Weisinger says:

        Still not understanding your point. Are you saying that reading the straightfoward peshat in chumash is apologetics?

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Separation of TSBP from Torah Shebicsav today just isn’t a focus on Pshat but rather a safe haven to avoid dealing with the unity of Torah Shebicsav and TSBP . I don’t see the letter of R Hutner ZL as having any relevance to the issue at hand.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Tou dont have to accept a false dichotomy of ArtScroll versus everything else. J
      You do have to be able to say why HaShem redeemed Klal Yisrael and gave Klal Yisrael Torah Shebicsav and TSBP without retreating into apologetics or a stance that you are solely working from pshat perspective. Anybother stance IMO lacks intellectual honesty.

  11. Mike S. says:

    The idea that the deception of Yaakov by Lavan and by the Shvatim over Yosef’s fate is midah k’neged mida for his deception of his father is hardly limited to, or novel with, the OO crowd. Among many others, the Gr”a said so. And it is plain pshat in the pasuk that, for whatever reason, Avraham did not tell Sarah that God told him she would have a child, as observed by (among many others) Ibn Ezra and Or Hachaim–she first heard this from the visitors.

    I find it unfortunate that some on the left tend to say even relatively conventional things in ways designed to upset those on the right as much as possible. But it is often worth thinking about what is said before shouting “heresy” in a crowded theater.

    • Rafael Quinoaface says:

      The lefties don’t seem to want to quote the GR”A or any other peirush to slow where they are coming from. If you are correct that they are standing on earlier peirushim, why not bring support? The answer: their intention is not to actually comment on pasukim and themes in Chumash, as much as to put forward a social and political agenda, from the Left, tacking on some puzzling offerings from the Chumash to support this.

  12. Shades of Gray says:

    “and the ability to determine what is indeed a question”

    Do you have an example of this? After all, if something bothers someone, by definition, its a question.

    Rav  Wolbe is quoted as saying “there  is no such thing as a heretical question, only a heretical answer”.  I wonder if one needs to be able to question, or to evaluate, the logic of an answer as well, ie, tzarich iyun, is better than an apologetic answer.

  13. Ben Waxman says:

    Looking at the link that Akiva Weisinger posted (here it is again) made me realize something.

    If people want to rage against a few young rabbis who write questionable drashot, go ahead. If you want to try and challenge someone like Rav Bazak or Rav Yoel ben Nun or Rav Medan (and many others), all of whom write perushim that don’t go along with this demand for loyalty to the mesorah, you may quickly find yourselves way over your head.

    I am in no way saying that anyone needs to accept what they say. However, Rav Gordimer’s article is attacking the low lying fruit. If that is the issue, there isn’t that much to discuss.

  14. It sounds like some of the “progressive” divrei Torah originate from a human/non-hagiographic point of view. I can see how this appeals to some, but offends others.

    • Bob Miller says:

      “Non-hagiographic” sounds pretty neutral, and you seem to suggest that what we are discussing here embodies a kind of objectivity. To the contrary, it is hyper-partisan in its own special dishonest way.

  15. Doron Beckerman says:

    In 20:20 I see no issue. In 22:12 he’s following Tanna Kamma (22:12). And?

  16. Doron Beckerman says:

    That should be Bava Kamma 10.

  17. dr. bill says:

    20:20 is rather difficult. 22:12 is a machloket tannaim where the halakha does not follow unkelos.

  18. Doron Beckerman says:

    There is nothing in 20:20 that is against the halachah, and last I checked, Onkelos is not bound by the Shulchan Aruch.

    • dr. bill says:

      20:20 is remarkable. unkelos is not bound by the shulchan aruch, as you point out and btw no sane individual would say otherwise. In fact, there are yet other examples where practice and unkelos disagree. i have only half-jokingly told someone you are following unkelos but not the traditional practice. more to the point, unkelos is not always bound by the halakhic interpretation, as 20:20 illustrates.

      treating unkelos as restricted to pshat, as you stated, is most often correct. However, it misses an important innovation that unkelos applied everywhere.

  19. Doron Beckerman says:

    OK – but that’s not what Or Hachaim is talking about. He’s talking about interpretations that are against halachah.

    • dr. bill says:

      i never mentioned the or hachaim, which i have never learned. because both you and pesach wolicki mentioned his introduction, i tried to read it this morning. i believe he states, as you do, that established halakha should not be contradicted by a new interpretation. clearly, he is aware of rishonim (and kal ve’chomer unkelos) who were not bound by that principle. whether we must be is open to discussion, at least at some level. (see the Rav ztl’s yartzeit shiur on, I believe, shenai minai mesoret.)

      what i found more relevant, is his implication, at least as i read it, that supports rabbi gordimer’s general thesis about how new interpretation should be rooted at least in oral traditions, something i may not understand correctly. those who are much more familiar with his language/style, feel free to correct me.

      • tzippi says:

        This conversation is going way beyond me but on the simplest (simplistic?) level, when someone avers that Avrohom failed the nisayon of the akeidah, I have to wonder what machzor s/he’s using on R”H and what kind of meaning the day has for her/him.

      • dr. bill says:

        i think one has read anachronistically to reach such a conclusion. i agree with you that such interpretations are not reading but “reading into” with a lens on a non-biblical society.

  20. DF says:

    Many Achronim also interpreted the Mishna differently than the Gemara. Come now, these issues are as old as the hills. There are no universal remotes in Men. As in so many other matters, whether one approves or disapproves of a certain approach depends upon which of the two fundamentally basic models in which Man comes. You can call them Rationalists v Mystics, Hedgehogs v Foxes, Rs v D’s, Conservatives v Liberals, Farkas’s v Skolinks [the names I hubristically gave to two models when I became aware of this immutable principle of the universe] or anything else you want. There is an infinite amount of gray and shade, but fundamentally there are two basic models, and one’s approach to learning, and how much deference to give to others, is a hard-wired difference in the factory settings that, by design, cannot be reconciled.

    • dr. bill says:

      as some might presume, I am not a traditional, traditional jew. however, while academics will offer innovative readings of a Mishnah, different than the gemara, I was surprised that many achronim would do that. in fact, i would like to see any achron doing that.
      first-rate academics normally (there are many dummies among the ranks of academics) go to great lengths to explain this phenomenon, often based on historical or theological developments, which would take significant effort to explain. A good example is prof. hayes’ Ph.D. on sugyot in AZ. I can point to some well-reasoned exceptions, but that would draw more fire than I have time to defend.

      but achronim, really?? arguing on rishonim, yes – though not often. on the SA, yes but not even that with any frequency.

      oy, your causing me to lose my liberal credentials :).

      • Steve Brizel says:

        Is it not correct that GRa does argue with Rishonim at times in Shas?

      • dr. bill says:

        again i have no idea what your sentence means. but the gra and shaagas aryeh dispute rishonim in their talmudic interpretation. many great achronim including the chatam sofer dispute the SA. i have no time to provide examples

      • Steve Brizel says:

        I thought so.

  21. Shades of Gray says:

    R. Hershel Schachter discussed non-traditional scholarship in the YU Commentator a number of years ago:

    “Is there room for non-traditional scholarship? A lot of the non-traditional commentary works on peirush ha-milot, and on peshuto shel mikra, which is very important. We’re not sure about the meaning of a great deal of Biblical words, and we follow the principle, “kabel es haemes mimi sheomro.” If someone has a suggestion, we would be happy to listen – and some of the suggestions of the non-traditional scholars are gevaldig! But as far as the overall picture of Tanakh is concerned, Chazal had their own tradition of interpretation. Why should we assume that someone living centuries later is going to have a better interpretation?

    But there is certainly room for this. For instance, archaeology is discovering practices that existed years ago in the days of the Tanakh, and based on these findings, we can understand problematic verses in Tanakh. It is certainly a mitzvah to understand the peshuto shel mikra, and to know what the verse is talking about.”(“Torah is Not Just a Collection of Dinim: An Interview with Rav Herschel Schachter” by Ari Lamm, Commentator, 11/07).

    R. Jonathan Sacks quotes from R. Yosef Ibn Aknin, student of Rambam( Commentary to Shir Hashirim, 495) in “A Clash of Civilizations?: Judaic Sources on Co-existence in a World of Difference”, pgs. 42, 99) :

    “In his book Hameassef, Rabbenu Hai Gaon of blessed memory made use of the work of the Arabs . . . and he also used a stanza from a love song to clarify a saying of our rabbis of blessed memory . . . He also quotes the Koran and the Hadith. And so did R. Saadia Gaon of blessed memory before him in his Arabic commentaries, and for this reason the sages said, “Whoever says a word of wisdom, even among the nations of the world, is called a sage” . . . and in this connection the Nagid, after citing many Christian explanations, recounts . . . that R. Hai Gaon instructed R. Matzliach ben Albassek, the dayan of Sicily, to go to the head of the Christian church [the Nestorian patriarch] to ask him what he knew regarding the interpretation of a biblical verse, whose meaning was in doubt. When he saw that R. Matzliach was reluctant to go, he rebuked him and said, “Our ancestors and pious predecessors would ask the adherents of other faiths, and even shepherds, as is known, for guidance on the meaning or explanation of a word.”

    See also “The Dayan and Da’as Mikra”, Torah Musing, 7/13, regarding R. Shaul Yisraeli.

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