Friday, August 03, 2007

Setting the record straight

MYTH: On Har Sinai Moshe received a copy of the Vilna Shas and the complete Mikraot Gedolot
TRUTH: Scary as it may sound, there are those who believe with a complete belief that every word of the oral torah was delivered at Mount Sinai, exactly as it appears today on the pages of the Mishna and the Talmud. In other words, they believe that thousands of years before Rabbi Akiva lived, Jewish students knew that one day Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon and the others would have their famous walk on the Temple Mount, that they knew what Rabbi Akiva would say before he actually said it. Support for this is found in the Talmud: "The Holy One blessed be He, showed Moshe the minutia of the Torah" [Meg 19b] and in Pesachim (17A) we're told that Moshe received the whole Torah, including the "comments" and even the questions an astute student will one day ask in the presence of his teacher.

According to this view, the maximalistic view, there are no new ideas, and no new rulings. It was all given to Moshe at Sinai, and the halacha Orthodox Jews follow today was contingent on nothing. Every word, every decision, and indeed our every practice was inevitable from Sinai.

A more palatable view of the revelation is found in Tana debei Eliyahu Zuta where we are told that God gave man "a kab of wheat (from which to produce flour) and a bundle of flax (from which to produce cloth)." Not every law was determined beforehand. Some laws and explanations were left for us to to determine. Man isn't a passive receiver, but an active creator. God provided the principles, the raw materials, and left it to us to work out the details, to use those principles to create a system of law and life. The results, therefore are absolutely contingent, and there is nothing inevitable about the Judaism we created.

An intermediate position is attributed to R Yannai (P. Sanhedrin 22a) who said that the oral law "was not given as a clear cut decision;" instead "He offered 49 arguments by which a thing could be proven unclean, and 49 arguments by which a thing could be proven clean." This position accepts the maximalistic view that God literally revealed to Moshe the whole Torah, minus the final decisions. The final decisions are not inevitable, but contingent on the decisions of the scholars of each generation. According to this opinion, God does not decide. All arguments (all legitimate arguments anyway) are potentially true.

MYTH: Soon after Akiva started learning Torah he was introduced to the Gemarah, at which point he was pleased and amazed to discover that he would one day engage in argument with some guy named Tarfon.
TRUTH: See above. It seems to me that those who take at face value the Talmud's claims on Meg 19b and Pesachim 17A have little choice but to embrace this altogether embaressing opinion. Luckily we have several outs. Two are described above, and there is also the license given to us by Samuel ibn Naghrela (aka Samuel ha-Nagid) in Mevo ha'Talmud, where it says that only halacha is binding and the student is free to disbelieve haggadic statements.

MYTH Rashi is always right.
TRUTH: Because Rashi is so popular, he's perhaps the most widely misunderstood of all the biblical commentators. His commentary isn't meant to be an anthology of midrashim; and, pace the faculty of my high school, his purpose isn't to fill in blanks in the narrative, or to tell us what really happened behind the scenes. Nor is he the last word on what a verse means.

Here's the closest thing we have to his mission statement :There are many Aggadaic expositions which our Sages have already organized in their proper order in Bereishis Rabbah and in other Midrashim. But, I have come only to to give the plain meaning of Scripture and the Aggadah which serves to clarify the words of Scripture in a way which fits those words. [Gen 3:8 ]

Most of the time, Rashi comments when he sees an anomaly or maculation in the verse that calls out for an explanation. Then he used his knowledge of midrash or grammar to solve the problem, often choosing between competing midrashim, and sometimes reworking the midrash for the sake of solving the problem.

Other commentators have other objectives and therefore come to different conclusions, but because their goals are different its impossible to say that one is right and the other is wrong. Until time travel is invented, we'll never know, for instance, if Rivka was three years old or her wedding day, as Rashi says, or a bit older as the Ibn Ezra mantains.

MYTH Midrash is always literal, and always history
TRUTH: Midrash serves many purposes, but telling us what happened in space and time isn't one of them. [See Maamar Al ha-Agadot by the Ramchal and Mevo ha'Talmud by Samuel ha-Nagid if you don't believe me]

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