Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Krum speaks! A defense of "Yeshiva guy says over a vort" by its creator

Guest post by “Krum As A Bagel”

Note:
 This post was taken from Hirhurim, where it was posted as an invited response to a really bad post which attempted to criticize the video but missed the boat by about ten miles as I discuss here. 

Gil has generously offered me the opportunity to post a response to his post (link). Much of what I say below reiterates comments I made to Gil’s post and echoes what others have written, but, as the producer of the “yeshiva guy” video, I thought it worthwhile to post a response in a public forum. I find the need to do this somewhat irritating, as I believe the video speaks for itself and I really don’t have the time or energy to engage in a lengthy debate about it (which is why I abandoned my blog years ago), but given the attention it has received and the accusations made about it and its producer, I feel obliged to respond.

>> Read the rest after the jump
The target of the video was not what Rabbi Hoffman calls the “maximalist” position, but rather a kind of uncritical acceptance of that position taken to an absurd extreme (e.g., Crocs on Tisha b’Av) and treating it as the only legitimate derech, an approach than I find quite common in yeshivish circles. The video portrays a yeshiva student who heard some cute “sholosh seudos torah” at his rebbe’s house. Rather than accepting the vort in the spirit in which it was given, when faced with a set of reductio ad absurdum arguments from his interlocutor, he proceeds to extrapolate from the vort an extreme position not only about the Avos’s mitzvah observance, but their omniscience as well, that I don’t believe has any support in traditional sources.

Some have argued (I think Gil makes this argument) that perhaps the tan bear should just live and let live. Perhaps. Of course, it’s a cartoon designed to make a point, so I believe this criticism misses the point. Moreover, while she is clearly frustrated with the yeshiva guy, her questions are fair and she is willing to hear him out. It should also be kept in mind that this is the same yeshiva guy who called her a kofer in the other video. So perhaps she sees him as yet again asserting his position as the only legitimate one (as he acknowledges in the last bit of dialogue).

Others have argued that even if I am correct, I should have nonetheless anticipated that people would misinterpret the video as an attack on the Torah or Torah sages. But I don’t think one should be held accountable for the misinterpretations of their audience. True, the video is irreverent, and perhaps for many the irreverence colored their perception of the video (a brown bear said R’ Elyashiv’s name!! He’s mocking our sages!), but I don’t think such a reaction is fair. (Although I will admit that I may have spelled things out a bit more clearly had I anticipated an audience of over 40,000).

The response that I found most distressing was not the attacks on the video itself or its producer. Instead, it was Rabbi Hoffman’s statement about the place of the minimalist position in our Torah institutions. As his article makes clear, Rabbi Hoffman is not only familiar with the minimalist position, he seems to respect it as a legitimate part of the mesorah. Yet he nonetheless concludes that the “maximalist” position should be “general position that should be taught in our Torah institutions.” So what is the place of the minimalist position? Well, in the kiruv context, Rabbi Hoffman says it should be presented as one of the alternatives. This suggests that outside that context, i.e., in our schools from pre-K through beis midrash and seminary, the maximalist position should be presented. One of the most negative religious experiences I had in high school (and I think I am speaking on the behalf of others as well) was being told that a particular statement of Chazal that seemed to defy logic had to be accepted literally and if I problems with that answer there was something wrong with my hashkafah. That fact that Rabbi Hoffman affirms this approach to teaching teenage boys and girls — even those growing up in acculturated Orthodox communities such as the Five Towns/Far Rockaway (as I understand it, Rabbi Hoffman teaches at a Beis Yaakov school in Far Rockaway with a large, diverse student body) — is saddening. While some of Rabbi Hoffman’s comments to Gil’s post suggested that his position is more nuanced that my presentation here, he has yet to clarify it.

One final point about the d’var torah that the yeshiva student repeats in the video. It can be found on the internet and is cited in the name of R’ Chaim Kanievsky. So doesn’t that mean my video is poking fun at R’ Chaim? No. As I mention above, it is my firm belief that this vort belongs to a certain genre of d’var torah referred to as “shalosh seudos torah.” Their main goal is to be playful and clever rather than to explain p’shat in the pasuk. What makes me confident that this is the case? The vort makes no sense as p’shat even if one accepted the maximalist position. As the tan bear herself asked, if Yaakov knew the whole Torah, how can he be uncertain about the bracha on lentils? Also, the vort isn’t even about Yaakov’s mitzvah observance. It is about Esav’s. So the d’var torah goes beyond even the maximalist position. In fact, a sefer of R’ Chaim’s divrei torah on Chumash was recently (?) published. It is filled with short questions and answers somewhat similar to the yeshiva guy’s dvar torah. I recently perused it quickly and noticed that one of the questions asked about some inconsistency between a certain story in Bereishis with halakha (I don’t recall the details) and his answer was simply “we don’t learn halacha from the stories in Bereishis,”

Gil pointed out that R’ Hershel Schachter and many other great figures produced a large body of divrei torah that invoke halachik categories in evaluating the actions of the Avos. However, I would bet that most of them deal with Choshen Mishpat-type questions regarding the business dealings of the Avos rather than halachic minutiae regarding sefek beracha or netilas yedayim. I think there is a qualitative difference between the two.

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