Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 24 December 2012

Putting Tanach Back Into The Curriculum

Rav Shimon Eidensohn over at the venerable Daas Torah blog has a post containing a statement by Rav Sternbuch, senior honcho in the Eida Chareidis, on whether or not learning Tanach is something people should do nowadays.  Not surprisingly he comes out against such study although he does give some advice for those intent on doing it as to which mephorshim to use in order to better understand the text.  However I believe that by trying to keep the study of Tanach out of the basic Jewish curriculum he accidentally highlights one of the reasons for the current levels of trouble in the frum community.
His statement, "The reason for avoiding teaching Tanach is it tends to give a less spiritual understanding – G‑d forbid –  of G‑d’s relationship with us" seems to say it all.  Yes, he does clarify his position to an extent and in a way that I agree with.  It is axiomatic that one cannot understand Tanach by simply reading the text without a proper commentary accompanying it.  The good book (and to be precise, any reference from here on to Tanach is to the Nach part) is simply incomprehensible without it.  There are incomplete narratives, varying statements, contradictions and other such problems with various parts.  Furthermore, most of the prophecies deal with complex and deep subjects and what they're actually referring to is a matter of debate amongst the commentators.  To simply read the Tanach and decide for oneself what a part of the text means is unacceptable from a Jewish point of view.
But the statement that learning Tanach gives us less of a spiritual understanding of the Divine is, in my humble and poorly-learned opinion, the reverse of what the case really is.
My father always noted that the Tanach, as opposed to the Talmud, cut through complex ethical and social issues to provide unmistakable positions on them.  The Tanach isn't a legalistic text.  It does not contain records of debates between the Sages of the First Temple period.  It doesn't deal with civil or criminal laws in any great depths and even common things like Shabbos and kashrus are barely mentioned.  What it does do, over and over again, is return to the point that the practice of Torah observance should be an end towards great moral behaviour and appreciation of the Divine.
This is, unfortunately, the opposite of much Talmud study nowadays.  As a Rav I once heard speak noted, one can learn multiple pages of Gemara and never mention God once.  Much of the Talmud is devoted to pain-staking and hair-splitting analysis of Jewish law, the intent behind the mitzvos and the optimal way to practice them.  This is important, there is no questioning that.
But the moral point behind why it is important to excel in mitzvah observance often gets lost in this.  Go into the average Jewish bookstore and look at the shelves.  How many volumes are dedicated to the analysis of this section or that in Jewish law, civil, criminal or ritual?  How many are dedicated to ethical and moral behaviour?
This is where Tanach comes in and where it becomes a threat to the current frum status quo.
Consider all the repeated scandals plaguing the Torah observant community.  One has to wonder how people who claim such a high level of devoutness, people like Nechemya Weberman who belongs to a Lubavitch-offshoot that has the hagaavah to call itself Molochim, can commit the crimes they do while aspiring to the highest level of mitzvah observance when it comes to other areas of their life like kashrus and Shabbos.  What are they thinking?  How do they justify themselves?
It's tempting to suggest that these folks know they're commiting a fraud and are keeping up the "kosher" appearance in their lives just because they don't want to lose the position in their social circles.  Some may be psychopaths in the classic, not axe-wielding, defintion of completely lacking a conscience.  While this might be true for some, it's clearly not the case for most.  From what we know of these people they sincerely do not believe they have commited any sins when they are found out.  Statements about from rabbinic authorities downplaying their misdeeds or finding some kind of halachic loophole to justify them.  They harbour no regrets.  When they say vidui on Yom Kippur these crimes aren't part of their personal cheshbon.
But Rav Sternbuch's statement, on the other hand, might go a long way towards explaining many things, from the most gross crimes commited by otherwise observant Jews to the petty harrassing of yeshivah students by their rebbes leading them to go OTD as a result. 
An education in in-depth Talmud nowadays does not seem to provide any kind of a moral underpinning for the Torah observant lifestyle.  Instead it provides one with minutiae, obscure facts and a belief that the halachic system is like any other legal system.  It contains rules and it contains exceptions to those rules and knowing that can provide one with a solid basis for commiting most any crime one wants to.
Where is the fear of God?  Well it wasn't mentioned in the relevant sugya.  After spending 10 pages reading the Chachamim debating on a particular point, the Talmud does not conclude with "And thou shalt remember to fear the Lord always".  Sure the Torah repeatedly reminds us "v'yareisa meHaShem Elokecha" but like the rule on not eating falcons or eagles it doesn't reach a level of personal relevance for many. 
The Tanach is dangerous to the system because it does the opposite.  It asks the questions that so many wish to avoid: If you're a SOB, what worth do you think performing the mitzvos has?  Where did you get the idea that you can sin and then offer a sin offering l'hatchilah?  Why do you think God wants any part of your finagling and mangling of His Law? 
The great nevi'im did not argue about whose cow injured whose and whose responsibility it is to pay for the whole thing?  They spoke to grand moral issues and of God's designs for us, His requests for our behaviour.  A good chapter of Yishiyahu or Yechezkel slaps down the folks who justify yeshiva rebbe pedophiles while demanding women sit at the back of the bus.  Yirmiyahu reminds us of the consequence of simplistic piety being used to cover a rotten moral system. 
In short, the Tanach reminds us that while other people might be fooled, while we might even successfully delude ourselves, God is above all that and sees through the crap to the truth of the matter even when we desperately want to deny it.
Perhaps that's the root of Rav Sternbuch's concern.  So much of what passes for policy in the Orthodox community is at odds with the basic moral system as presents clearly and unambiguously in Tanach.  The only way to avoid dealing with the contradiction is to announce that the Tanach is way too complicated to understand (even those it's clear that many parts come straight out and say what they mean) and therefore should simply be avoided.  Problem solved!
No, no it's not.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I’m not religious, but I agree with what you say in this post. I think it is possible that large swaths of Orthodox Jews have ceded common morality to the secular world and consider it goyishe.

I used to be more religious – and it created some weird feelings in me about common morality. Common morality seemed simplistic, naïve, and did not feel like it came out of my training in Yiddishkeit, or my exposure to Yiddishkeit. I let common morality go a bit, take second place to my Yiddishkop thinking.

I knew it was troubling to me as a secular Jew – but I tried on a different kind of morality.

I left Yiddishkeit for a host of reasons, but I feel generally much more morally intact without it, than when I struggled with it. I act out of an instinctive and learned common decency, instead of wringing my hands over what to do in a given situation now. And I sleep better because of it.

I think OJ can be so self-conscious, so many rules that are examined and disputed, that common decency can truly be sacrificed on the pyre of over-analysis.

Another thing I think is that orthodox Jews need a benefit to all the costs of living an OJ live. The benefit can be as simple as sacrificing common morality, and finding a way to do anything – so long as there is a shred of halachic or hashgafic argumentation to support it. It is actually a fun way to think, but it can lead to some indecent decisions.

This is NOT to say that all OJers lack a commitment to what the rest of our society considers common morality – just that to get there, they may have had to work hard on their own, and with their own role models, in order to avoid the common pitfall of using loopholes and argumentation to relieve themselves of certain general moral responsibilities.

General morality is I believe always considered a bit suspect and close to “goyishe” thinking, because it is arrived at in a “non-Jewish” way. Even the sages say that man would develop general morality without Torah – there is something about this that is true, and also, non-Torah.

Tuvia

Neshama said...

I really liked what you wrote. I also feel there is too much amiss in the way Yiddishkeit is being practiced. Too many Jews realize there are great big problems in their community, some complain daily and other look the other way. No one really knows how to get a handle on things, to straighten the crooked branches on the Jewish Tree. Each individual has to examine his/her own life and deal with the issues, and make changes. What will it take to get it done?

It might just be the Erev Zeir that are the ones running the asylum.

Mr. Cohen said...

Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Raba, Chapter 18, Paragraph 55:
When a Jew learns the entire Tanach (Torah, Neviim and Cetubim), he is granted two angels [to guard him]...

Adam Zur said...

Why do Orthodox Jews not learn the Old Testament?

One obvious reason is that some people will eventually reach the end of shoftim [the book of Judges] where the tribes of Israel took a count of who and who did not join the Army. [That case was not in the category of a milchemet mitvah but rather milchemet reshut.] They saw that one specific group of people decided not to join the army.[I am hinting something about the charedim] So Klal Israel decided to go and to exterminate that entire group.. After they had exterminated all the men and women they saw a small number of virgins were left which they decide to give the the tribe of Benyamin. [Of course the reason they decide to exterminate the tribe of Benyamin with Approval of G-d was that this wicked tribe has killed someone's girl friend whom he was living with even though they were not married. In the frum world today it is also highly questionable how such an arrangement would be viewed.]

Mr. Cohen said...

Tanna DeBei Eliyahu Rabba, Chapter 11, Paragraph 3:
The Holy One Blessed Be He said:
I only gave you the Land of Israel so you could read [Tanach] and study [Oral Torah] and labor in each Torah in its proper time, and learn proper conduct.

JT said...

I once attended a halachah shiur in which the ba'al darshan took a stand that many found difficult to reconcile with their innate sense of fairness. One listener defended the Rav: "This is halachah! What's yosher go to do with it?" This is the attitude that is engendered by exclusive abstract Talmud study without a solid grounding in Tanach and actual Jewish history to provide context to the discussion. Even reading sha'alos and teshuvos to see how Rabbanim over the years applied Talmudic principles would help. Talmud unconstrained can - and does - produce monstrosities.

Just a Civilian said...

Thanks.

Would you consider writing a "clinical" follow-on post based, say, on the haftarot of Yom Kippur or Tisha B'Av?

Adam Zur said...

I would not blame the Talmud for the problems of Orthodox rabbis today. I have rarely come across a book of the depth and power of the Talmud. I think it would be simpler to blame the evil inclination-and the fact that any system can be abused.

JT said...

@Adam Zur
Of course I would not "blame" the Talmud. The Talmud is effectively the foundation of our religion and way of life. But the Talmud was not written in a vacuum. Almost everything is hung somehow on a pasuk. Where a ruling derives only from sevarah (a decisor's own logic and intuition) it is clear that such is the case. Often, a ruling is stated based on general practice, perticularly in areas relating to Choshen Mishpat/Nezikin law. There is always some context without which one cannot hope to apply Talmudic law to any actual case.

We seem to have severed this text from its context. This gives rise to twisted, monstrous rulings, based on extreme applications of misunderstood principles.

Adam Zur said...

"We seem to have severed this text from its context."
Right. I have also noticed this problem.I have in particular noticed the difference between the world view of the Talmud and many rabbis. Outside of some rituals there seems to be no point
of intersection

SJ said...

to be honest the tanach really is a great book btw one of the judges was a woman Deborah indicating that God is ok with female political leaders someone go tell the toyrah scholars that shit. XD