Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 16 March 2012

Frightened Of The Past

When I was in high school I reached a defining moment of my life although I didn't appreciate the importance of it at the time.
Until that point somewhere in Grade 9 my father had always been able to help me with my math homework.  (My mother could as well but the neighbours asked that we stop that because of how loud the screaming got)  He smiled and told me how happy he was that my education had reached the point he could no longer teach me something.  Not that I didn't still have a lot to learn, mind you, but it was still a milestone.
One of the goals of a teacher, in my opinion, should be to raise a student to excel and eventually surpass him.  One knows one has done a good job once the student asks questions one can no longer answer.  It means that the teacher has been successful in transmitting everything he knows of the subject in such a way that the student as mastered it.  It should be a proud moment for both.
There are some, however, who disagree and seem to think that the teacher should always be superior to the student, that a student who manages to exceed his teacher in some way is someone being disrespectful.  This is impression I got from Rav Shaul Gold's recent piece on Cross Currents.  In it, Rav Gold notes an experience he had watching a teacher of his disagree with his own rebbe on how to understand a Tosafos.  I sometimes wonder what kind of a person Rashi was.  Was he an autocratic dictator, the kind of man that expected people to jump when he entered the room and who shouted down anyone who dared to disagree with him?  Was he a compassionate teacher who looked forward to challenges from students and hoped to be enriched by discussions from those challenges?  Was he interested only in getting his point across or in arriving at a true understanding of Torah?
The fear and trembling that the teacher displayed in daring to state that he disagreed with his rebbe left a lasting impression on him and from there he goes on to extrapolate:
I was recently privy to a conversation regarding the efficacy of teaching “fantastical” Rashis and midrashot to young students. An example given referred to the age of Rivka when she met and married Yitzchok and the discussion included whether such material can or should be taken literally and/or whether other commentaries that gave more “rational” explanations, should supplant those Rashis and Midrashim.

My thoughts went back to R’ Nochum and to the many other great sages that stood in awe and reverence of their predecessors – to those who viewed the early Achronim and the Rishonim as towering giants that far surpassed them quantitatively, qualitatively and spirtitually. I thought about Rashi and how carefully each of his words was weighed, about the amount of times each comment was reviewed and rewritten before it was presented to the public, and about Rashi’s acclaim as the father of pshat. And then I thought about the cavalier manner that this holy genius’s work was being reviewed and how much more “savvy” our contemporaries are.
I thought about R’ Nochum and how he stuttered and I thought about Rashi. I thought about how our teachers and sages trembled when discussing a difficult Rashi and the joy they had when they reached an understanding of the deeper meaning behind Rashi’s words. And then I thought of those that know better than Rashi.
Like my Rabbeim, I tremble before Rashi. But I shudder at the thought of those that wish to deconstruct him.

One of the problems with Chareidi ideology today is its black and white approach to pretty much everthing.  If you question the "Daas Torah" of a "Gadol" you are a kofer b'ikkar whose touch turns wine treif.  If you don't follow the latest chumrah of the week you are a poretz/prutzah with no respect for Chazal or mitzvos.  If you think you have reached a different understanding than Rashi on a sugya, well how dare you!  Don't you know that Rashi will always have understood it better than you?  How dare you contradict him?  His peirush was written with ruach hakodesh.  He was infallible.  He was a giant and you are an ant.  How do you think you are to disagree with him?  The Ramban?
If Rashi was a true teacher of Torah then I doubt he would have been as worried about his honour as Rav Gold seems to be.  In truth, fossilizing him as a perfect scholars who cannot be questions would be offensive to him.  Disagreement, if respectfully done and with a goal not towards contradicting the teacher but towards understanding Torah better is an important part of learning.  Chazal in Avos tell us an impatient person cannot teach while a bashful person cannot learn.  Questions, challenges, demanding to understand and defending one's position as best as one can are part of the learning process demanded by Chazal.
Rashi is essential to understanding Torah and Talmud.  He is the beginning of any elucidating process but - and this is so important to understand - he is not the end and I don't believe he would want to be.  The purpose of a teacher is not to impose his singular understanding of the subject on his students but to teach them to understand the material and develop that understanding in new ways that can challenge him.  Is Rav Gold really serious when he says that other commentaries should not supplant Rashi and the Midrashim?  Has he not looked inside a Mikraos Gedolos lately?
There's a book for sale out there called "Shnayim Mikra v'Echad Targum".  It's format is simple - it prints a word from the parsha twice and then the Aramaic word afterwords.  Then the next word, and so on.  By reading it straight through you technically have fulfilled your obligation to read the parsha twice and the Targum once but honestly, did you get anything out of it other than the basic fulfillment of the obligation?  Did Chazal and the later authorities think that this was the way to learn Chumash? 
Are we interested in understanding Torah or perpetuating learning by rote without it ever being anything deeper?


Bob Miller said...

The key is to arrive at conclusions after due deliberation, including thorough consideration of the positions of Rishonim, and, if these conclusions differ from those of a Rishon, to make one's case respectfully.

Discouraging deep independent thinking by students is certainly not what a Rishon would have advocated.

AztecQueen2000 said...

Why not? That's exactly what the Rishonim did!

SJ said... XD

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

There is another important fact that has to be recognized. If one has a problem with a Rashi, the awe that may be due Rashi also cannot allow for someone to accept the problematic understanding of Rashi as what Rashi meant. Let's look at the case of Rivka, for example. Of course, one cannot dismiss the view that she was three out-of-hand with disrespect to the elite Torah views that express this view. Yet, the problem inherent in this idea also cannot be dismissed. My response is that Rashi says that she was three and I really have no idea what that means for, in my consciousness, the behaviour described is inapplicable to a three year old. Because of the respect with which I hold Rashi, I must conclude that I don't really understand what he is conveying. What drives me crazy is that there are so many that ultimately show disrespect to our sainted Sages by having to dumb down their words in order to give these words a meaning which they, in their foolishness, can understand. Recognize that you don't know what Rashi is talking about and thus you don't know what you are talking about. Then enter the real world of decision making with a bit more modesty.

Rabbi Ben Hecht