Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Questions Aren't Fatal, But Stupid Answers Are

Sometimes I wonder if the bagmen the Agudah employs, like Rav Avi Shafran, actually believe the falsehoods and distortions they print or if somewhere deep down they realize they're just presenting the company line because they're being paid to, not because it's what they actually hold by.
And sometimes one gets a clear message that, in fact, they have bought the company line hook and sinker.  They really do believe in the alternative reality the leadership of the Agudah would love us to believe is the true one, not the solid one around us that we actually live in.
Case in point is Rav Shafran's latest piece in which he tries a different tactic to reach out to the unbelieving (that is, anyone not with the Agudah's line of thinking) crowd.  Instead of being condescending or dismissive as is his usual wont, he instead starts off by making what he must believe is an amazing concession to the "Sliffkin side" of things:


Young (and not so young) Jews will always have questions about our religious tradition, or mesorah; and asking questions is the only way to ascertain and internalize truth. Some claim that teachers of Torah today don’t allow certain issues to be raised. If that is true (and I hope it’s not), it is lamentable. Because no question, honestly asked, is a bad question. And if a teacher doesn’t feel adequate to the task of correctly answering one, that’s also fine. In such cases, both teacher and student can—and should—go to someone more knowledgeable to learn more.
This approach is a not-so-subtle swipe at the introduction to the book that shall go unnamed because it's been banned for violating "the mesorah" and its view of creation.  In that introduction, the author that shall go unnamed notes the old Yiddish saying: You don't die from a question.  It's a great saying and makes an important point: there are some things about the universe and everything God has put in it that we can never know about.  Human brains are only so big.  We can conceive of only so much.  There will always be those things that are beyond human ken.  
Now when the book that shall go unnamed was published, the vociferous response from its opponents was that one is not allowed to ask questions, especially of "Daas Torah".  By asking questions one was perceived to be lacking faith and this was assur.
Now in all fairness, it wasn't all questions that were banned.  Asking something like "Well how did the Rashba answer the Ramban on such and such?" was perfectly fine.  Asking something like "Do you really expect me to believe that dinosaur bones were planted deep in the ground by God just to test my faith?" was not.
So along comes Rav Shafran with a third approach - you can ask your question but you have to ask the right person and then accept the answer, modifying your worldview if necessary to make it acceptable.  In his case, it was the idea that there was this ancient code of law, the Code of Hammurabi, that contained many laws that were similar to Torah legislation on current matters of the day. It was also clear that the Code predated the giving of the Torah and was probably more current with the Avos, especially Avraham Avinu.  For Rav Shafran this raised a question:


Elements of the code, instituted by a king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, bear clear similarities to various of the Torah’s laws. What, I asked myself, were laws that would only be given to the Jewish People at Sinai doing inscribed on tall stones centuries earlier?
Had I been drinking coffee when I read this, I probably would be off at the store right now buying a new screen and keyboard as I would have sprayed said coffee all over them.  Instead I sat back and tried to wrap my head around the realization I'd just come to: Rav Avi Shafran honestly believes that no history other than that detailed in the Torah ever happened.  
I mean, I'd heard it before.  For example, I once heard someone describe the war between the four and five kings in Lech Lecha as "the first world war" or "the first war in history" because, after all, the Torah hadn't mentioned any others until now but I always figured (hoped?) that people were speaking figuratively.  After all, there were civilizations scattered across the world at this point.  Surely it was obvious that other wars had been fought and that the one in Lech Lecha was mentioned because it was relevant to the life story of Avraham Avinu, right?
Apparently not.
Then there is the line "laws that would only be given to the Jewish people at Sinai".  Again, one has to ask: does Rav Shafran really believe that there were no other societies that had developed laws for dealing with damages, slaves, marriage, etc.?  Does he really believe that the social, civil and criminal legislation given to us at Sinai was the first such system in history simply because the Torah mentions no others?
From the answer his esteemed rebbe gave him, it seems he's not the only one:







So naturally, I brought my question, like countless others about science, history and other things, to my rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore. He just looked at me in his inimitable, sympathetic way, and posed a question of his own. “And Avi,” he said with deliberation, “just what do you think Avraham Ovinu spent his entire life doing?”
My question, I immediately realized, wasn’t much of one. A fundamental datum about Avraham, I knew but didn’t consider, is that he spent his days tirelessly spreading the word about the Creator of all, and sharing elements of His Torah (whose laws, the Midrash teaches us, were known to, and studied by, our forefathers).
Did I really think, Rabbi Weinberg was saying to me, that Avraham’s efforts had had no effect on the society of his day, or on laws enacted by leaders of the time?
Now without meaning any disrespect to such a great Talmid Chacham as Rav Weinberg, z"l, I feel compelled to ask: what were they smoking?!  Am I really expected to believe that the Code of Hammurabi was influenced by Avraham Avinu, that it was his keeping of the "whole Torah" and "all the mitzvos" that influenced the Mesopotamanian society of the time to create its own code of laws?  
What we know of Avraham Avinu's life is, after all, amazingly little.  Entire decades of it pass without any mention being made of his activities but one thing is clear: he had no contact with the great world leaders of the day and certainly no influence in their courts.  He was a righteous man, he spoke with God, he received His understanding of how the world was to run and how a person is expected to conduct himself in a divine fashion, but he never sat down with Hammurabi one sunny afternoon to dictate to him how to write a code of law for his country.
Want to know how I'm certain?  Because the Torah never says so!
Well shouldn't that be a good enough answer?  After all, if the four vs five kings is the first war in history because the Torah mentions no other, then one must also conclude that Avraham Avinu never wrote or influence a code of law for the local nations as that same Torah does not mention it either!  Yet I'm supposed to believe that his schedule consisted of a Daf Yomi shiur for the local Philistine nobility in the morning, an expounding session on Seder Nezikin for the Babylonian royalty in the afternoon and a Pirkei Avos shiur outside his tent every Shabbos afternoon?
No doubt Rav Shafran would also insist, after being given this great insight, that accepting that the Hammurabi code was influenced by our Avos and developed from the Torah they taught the masses is an indispensable part of our mesorah, the rejection of which is basically kefirah.
But just because he and his bosses are shelling out the Kool-aid does not mean I have to drink it.
What is so threatening about accepting that Avraham Avinu and the rest of the Avos were good citizens of the era they lived in, that there were developed societies and legal codes that pre-dated the Torah because governments needed a way to organize things for their subjects?  No, none of those systems were divinely ordained like our Torah is but they still existed.  And how hard is it to believe that there would be similarities between those systems and the Torah just like legal systems today across the world share common features despite different histories and civilizational developments?
No, one doesn't die from a question but a stupid answer?  If it causes you to choke on your coffee, well that's fatal!

8 comments:

Michael Sedley said...

Got it.

Hammurabi was written by, or at least influenced by Avraham Avinu.

Makes perfect sense.

Could someone please pass me a wet cloth, for some reason I have coffee all over my keyboard and monitor.

Adam Zur said...

Many people have a “mechanism of belief fixation”. This is a way that we can get ourselves to believe the things we want to believe.
(eg Most of us spend more time thinking about arguments supporting our beliefs than we spend thinking about arguments supporting alternative beliefs))



Rabbis tend to hold religious beliefs that, if generally accepted, would benefit themselves or the group they identify with

People prefer to hold the Orthodox beliefs that best fit with the images of themselves that they want to adopt and to project.
They want to be respectable Jews and don't want to be considered apikorsim

People prefer to hold the religious beliefs of other people they like and want to associate with.


The problem with this is
if our beliefs about the world are being guided by the Orthodox Jewish group we want to fit into, the rosh yeshiva or rebbi like self-image we want to maintain, the desire to avoid admitting to having been wrong in the past, then it would be pure accident if enough of us were to actually form correct beliefs. Analogy: suppose your doctor, after diagnosing your illness, picks a medical procedure to perform on you from a hat. You would be lucky if the procedure chosen didn’t worsen your condition.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Adam, perhaps it's better to analogize it thusly: the doctor diagnoses you, feels that procedure "A" would be best for you and it's the one he's most familiar and comfortable with but then thinks that his buddies in the doctors' lounge will shun him because the department head likes procedure "B" because he thinks, for reasons only he knows, that "A" is stupid and that by extension any doctor who uses it is as well. So your doctor goes with "B" and convinces himself he's doing the right thing all along.

S. said...

As I am sure you realize, that you have to say what Rabbi Weinberg said in order to maintain yeshivishe hashkafos. The other two options is to do like Sarna, whom you ironically mention in the next post, and teach that the Bible is great because of its moral contrasts with the Near Eastern culture of its time, or conclude as Kugel does, that this approach is apologetics, and in reality the Bible is just an expression of another ancient Near Eastern culture, etc.

But what choice did R. Weinberg and Shafran have? They can't very well go with Sarna.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

I appreciate your point but I can't accept it just as is.
The essay reminds me of the Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise", the one where the plants spray people with their pollen and leave them in a state of perpetual happiness, oblivious to everything else. Sure it seems nice but it's not reality and doesn't help one deal with real issues other than through hallucinatory evasions.

Benjamin of Tudela said...

or option 3, you could reach the conclusion that Abraham did not come from such a corrupt culture, and that humans can reach some level of morality even without the torah...and still be a good yeshivah boy.

Bob Miller said...

Nimrod, whom some associate with Hammurabi, was not exactly best friends with Avraham Avinu. Yes, there were well-developed pagan societies, but these needed determined opposition on key points (such as through the rebellion against paganism itself). It's not too far-fetched to think that the opposition had some major influence, even if few instances of that are known to us through our sources.

S. said...

"I appreciate your point but I can't accept it just as is."

Why not? Do you really think there is another yeshivish answer?

It's like the problem of contact with the natives changing them, so true sociological observation is impossible. If there was another answer that a yeshivish Rosh Yeshiva could give, he wouldn't be yeshivish.

Benjamin, I think you mean Option 4. ;-)