Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Avos and the Mitzvos: A response to R. Yair Hoffman

I see one of the Five Towns clergy has attempted a response to Krum's outstanding video about the patriarchs and their mitzvah observance. Sadly, the response, written by Yair Hoffman for the 5 Towns Jewish Times, completely misses the point.

Here's his thesis [all errors of grammar, style and usage are SIC]:
An analysis of the video reveals that the agenda of the Youtube video producer was to push some of the left-of-center Hashkafa and to undermine the lessons taught in more Yeshivesh circles. It also mocks one of the Gedolei HaDor- Rav Elyashiv Shlita – and does so in a very unbecoming manner.
The problem here is that what Rabbi Hoffman dismisses as a "left-of-center" hashkofa was originally propagated by the Rishonim. If you open your mikraot gedolot to Gen 26:5 you will find that with the exception of Rashi every Rishon on the page - including Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, and Radak - disagrees with the premise that the Patriarchs kept all of the commandments.

So according to Rabbi Hoffman, are Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, and Radak to be considered iffy left-wingers?

This isn't a small question. In his rush to defend his own cherished way of thinking, Rabbi Hoffman has tossed five Rishonim, and all who accept them, under the proverbial bus. Like the brown bear who asked if the Rishonim expounding the view he didn't know "went to YU", Rabbi Hoffman seems convinced that anyone who hold like a Rishon, and not with his own friends is to be suspected. In keeping with this skewed sense of loyalty to his own kind at the expense of the classical commentators, Rabbi Hoffman angrily defends Rav Elyashiv, even as he is helping to marginalize 5 Rishonim.

But the larger issue is that in his mad rush to condemn anyone who thinks like the Rishonim, and not like the members of his own 21st century "yeshivish circle" Rabbi Hoffman has managed to completely misunderstand the video. Despite what Rabbi Hoffman says, its target isn't Rashi, who seems to think that the Patriarchs kept mitzvos, nor did it poke fun of Chazal. In fact, the video's wit is squarely aimed at the poorly educated fools who think they are doing God and Judaism a favor by strenuously defending the most fantastical interpretations while simultaneously ignoring and/or disparaging the Rishonim who disagreed with them. This is approximately what the peach-colored bear actually says at the end of the video. Had Rabbi Hoffman not been blinded by his own agenda, he might have noticed this.

Notwithstanding his inability to correctly perceive the object of the video's mockery,  Rabbi Hoffman might be  right about a related point. He writes that the video seeks to undermine "the lessons taught in more Yeshivesh circles" and this is true;  however, I would add that those lessons deserve to be undermined if they are disrespectful to Ramban, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni, and Radak. Like Krum, I know dozens of yeshivish Jews who will answer with utter rudeness, anger, and indignation when you "say over" an interpretation that disagrees with Rashi, or with the popular midrashim. This is the attitude Krum mocks. Krum and his video have no beef with Chazal; their opponents are the yeshivish simpletons who are unable to comprehend that much of what they take for granted was not accepted by Rishonim.

Even the comment about Rav Elyahiv had absolutely nothing to do with the sage himself, but with fools who who cling too tenaciously to a literal understanding of Rashi and midrashim. In the video, Rabbi Elyashiv isn't being attacked for ruling against wearing Crocs on Yom Kippur; rather, the brown bear (and those who think like he does) was being mocked for imagining that Yaakov's observances took into consideration halachic rulings made 4000 years later.

At the close of the article Rabbi Hoffman's contempt for the Rishonim is on full display when he concedes that while the views of the Rishonim must not be taught in a yeshiva, they are appropriate "[w]hen one is involved in Kiruv or deals with people that have been raised in secular environments." What is happening in our yeshivas that has made the opinion of Rishonim so controversial that they must be suppressed and hidden? And what do you suppose would happen to a blogger who suggested that perhaps Rav Elyashiv or the newly faddish Shem MiShmuel ought to be reserved for the kiruv crowd, but kept away from serious Torah students? Can Rabbi Hoffman even comprehend how offensive his suggestion is? Does he want us to attack the Mikraot Gedolat with black magic markers and redact the lefty ides, lest an unsuspecting student come across the Rishonim and their currently unsanctioned opinions? And is this Torah?

I should close by saying that I don't count Rabbi Hoffman among the fools I discuss in this post. Although he  gives us a criminal mis-characterization of Krum's intentions, the essay contains a learned discussion of the Avos and Mitzvos question. Unlike the brown bear, Rabbi Hoffman knows the sources, and he knows how to think. Alas, he's too frightened to be honest about what he knows. Instead of defending the peach bear for using Rishonim, logic, and common sense to widen the Torah perspective of his naive companion, Rabbi Hoffman adds his own well-educated voice to the timid chorus of ignorant fools who respond with fear and anger to any Torah perspective that comes from outside their pre-existing comfort zone. The peach bear may have employed an improper tone, but all he was doing was teaching the Torah of the Rishonim to someone who was not aware of it, and that is to be commended, not silenced.

A final irony: Like the bear who assumes that the Rishonim who disagree with Rashi were from YU, Rabbi Hoffman puts forward the notion that the video was produced by someone seeking to "push some of the left-of-center aspects of the Yeshiva University Hashkafa." Moreover, just as the brown bear argues that the Rishonim are "not from our mesorah", Rabbi Hoffman agrees that they aren't to be taught in Yeshiva, but set aside for kiruv purposes. It's a classic example of life imitating art, and one wonders why Rabbi Hoffman was too dumb to see it.

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