Sunday, November 28, 2010

Avos and Mitzvos: Fisking the Hirhurim post*

There's a very long post up at Hirhurim which manages to misrepresent the Krum video and the response to it. It's really quite a bad job.

 * I don't name the author because I don't want this post to come up when people Google his name
I. Disagreeing While Understanding
The blogosphere is abuzz over a video (all the way below) about two bears arguing over whether the Avos, the biblical Patriarchs, observed all of the commandments. The net result of the video is that the bear who holds that the Avos kept all of the mitzvos looks foolish. I found this video funny but offensive and unproductive. Let me explain why. 

The mark of a sophisticated thinker is understanding the views of people with whom he disagrees. 

You're about to discover that the author of this post is not a sophisticated thinker, as he is about to reveal a profound inability to understand Krum's video. Like me, I am sure you'll be disappointed.

You do not have the right to reject an opinion until you understand it. The video mocks the bear’s position without understanding it, out of ignorance portraying it as foolish.

Incorrect. The video does not mock any authoritative position on the Avos and Mitzvoth; rather it mocks a certain type of yeshiva guy, and his inability to think seriously about Rashi.  Superficial thinking, stubbornness in the face of evidence,  and fundamentalism are the targets here. Not Rashi and Chazal.

Let me explain. Rashi, based on a gemarah in Yoma says on Gen 26:5 that the patriarchs kept the "Oral Torah"; later, he cites a midrash that has Yaakov speaking the words "I kept the 613 mitzvos." Both comments are so unreasonable, and so illogical, that to say Rashi meant them literally, is to make Rashi seem like a fool. For example, in order for one person to keep "all 613 mitzvos" he would have to be an androgynous king and also a priest and a thief and an owner of Jewish slaves. Can anyone say, with a straight face, that Rashi thought this about Yaakov? Of course not, and indeed the super-commentaries address and solve these issues. Yet, the brown bear is only aware of Rashi, and he clings tenaciously to a literal (and untenable) interpretation of Rashi's words, demonstrating no awareness of what Rashi's own super-commentaries say. In fact, when he is asked the reasonable questions raised by the super-commentaries he responds with smug derision. This is the sort of arrogantly, ignorant personality the video mocks, and I say such a person 
deserves to be mocked. I'm surprised more people don't agree.
Someone coming to the video without prior understanding will leave it with a sense of condescension toward a view whose complexities he doesn’t realize. 

Wrong. He will come away with a sense of condescension toward stubborn, ignorant, fundamentalist Yeshiva boys. He won't come away with any opinion of Rashi's real view, as Rashi's real view, as explained by his super-commentaries, is neither presented nor discussed. All the video deals with the unsophisticated, superficial understanding of Rashi favored by a certain kind of Yeshiva boy.

More importantly, he will reject this view as irrational and unacceptable. He will write out of Judaism a view that has ample precedent among Rishonim and might very well be the majority view among Acharonim.

The unsophisticated, superficial understanding of Rashi is what will be rejected, and with good reason. His own super-commentators rejected it, too.

II. Avos and Mitzvos
The view that the Avos observed all of the mitzvos occupies a hallowed place in Jewish tradition, with Rashi in particular adopting it

Wrong. No one says the Avos observed ALL mitzvos, because as noted, no one in their right minds thought the Avos were androgynous kings, who were also thieves and priests. The view that the Avos kept whatever mitzvos they were able to work out on their own is what occupies a hallowed place in Jewish tradition, with Rashi saying they used Ruach Hakodesh to uncover many of them, and the majority of other Rishonim saying that they were able to discover far fewer on their own. No one with an ounce of sense says they kept ALL mitzvos.

(e.g., see Rashi to Gen. 19:3 that Lot served the angels matzah because it was Pesach).

Odd that you've quoted a Rashi about Lot to make a point about the Avos. It's also odd, that you've illogically concluded that "Lot ate Matzoh on one particular Pesach" = "Avos kept all mitzvos" You're smart enough to realize, (I hope) that Rashi could have said Lot ate Matzoh on that one Pesach for the reasons given by super-commentaries, without also saying that the Avos kept all mitzvos.

Someone who mock this position, mocks Rashi. Think about what that says about you.

This is an appeal to consequences. Think about what using such a cheap trick says about you.

However, it is not just Rashi. Ramban (Gen. 26:5) asks questions on the view that the Avos kept the mitzvos — e.g. how could Ya’akov marry two sisters? Unlike the bear in the video, Ramban does not dismiss the view as foolishness. He instead answers it. Only then does he offer an alternative explanation of the text. 

Correct. The Ramban rescues Rashi. If Krum's video was about Rashi perhaps he would have done the same. However, the video was not about Rashi, but about dopey Yeshiva boys who don't learn super commentaries, can't think logically and are afraid of new ideas, even if those ideas were first ariculated by Rishonim. Frankly, such people don't deserve to be rescued.

The Rashba (1:94) and Radbaz (2:696) both write responsa defending the view that the Avos kept the mitzvos. R. Eliyahu Mizrachi and R. Mordechai Yaffe, in their supercommentaries to Rashi, go to great lengths to explain the logic and mechanics of the patriarchal observance of mitzvos. And the Meshekh Chokhmah consistently explains nuances of patriarchal behavior based on this concept.

Wonderful. And the brown bear was not aware of any of these explanations. Instead of calling them up, he relied on fear tactics ("did they go to YU?") name calling ("you kofer!") and demonstrated lousy critical thinking skills. Such people exist, as you well know, and they deserve all the abuse we can heap on them

Those who believe that the Avos kept all the mitzvos mean it in the same way that we keep all the mitzvos. No single person can keep them all. It is logically impossible for someone to be both a Cohen, a Levi and a Yisrael; a king, a judge and a priest; a man and a woman; etc. He keeps all the mitzvos theoretically possible. Exactly what that entails is debated by the commentaries, with some brilliant and fascinating suggestions along the way.

Beautiful. Unfortunately those in the grips of brown bear thinking see all such explanations and interpretations as illegitimate. RASHI SAID ALL SIX HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN MITZVOS AND THATS WHAT HE MEANT is the brown bear's (unspoken) refrain. If you bring up a rishon, or an achron who interprets Rashi the brown bear thinks you might be a kofer, who probably went to YU. That attitude, and not Rashi or Chazal, is what the video attacks.

Shall we cross out all of these commentaries? Shall we throw them into the garbage?

No. We should find new ways to mock people who aren't aware of those commentaries, and due to their ignorance, insist on idiotic interpretations of Rashi, and treat Rishonim with disrespect. Those people and those attitudes was what should be crossed out and thrown in the garbage. Not Rashi.

The argument on behalf of R. Natan Slifkin was the exact opposite — to keep the canon open to authentic views. Are we now closing our minds and rejecting Rishonim and Acharonim?

No, we're rejecting close-minded yeshiva boys who think like the brown bear and make Rashi look foolish by insisting on literal interpretations of his words. We're also mocking yeshiva boys who think the Rishonim "must have gone to YU", and by association, we're also mocking Yair Hoffman who thought the video had to have been produced by someone at YU, and wants to throw Rishonim out of the canon and restrict them to kiruv situations only. 

[Part III and IV skipped] 

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