Sunday, January 01, 2006

Questioning the Sages

8 I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah which we now possess is the same that was given to Moses our teacher, peace be to him.

Ani Ma’amin, 8

    “Tell me, Malter, do you believe the written Torah is from heaven?” He was asking me if I believed the Pentateuch had been revealed by God to Moses at Sinai.
    I hesitated a moment. Then I said, “Yes.”
    He had noticed my hesitation. I saw by the sudden stiffening of his shoulders that he had noticed it. “You believe that every word in the Torah was revealed by God blessed by He to Moses at Sinai?
    “I believe the Torah was revealed,” I said carefully. My own understanding of the revelation was based on enough sources within the tradition for me to be able to answer that question affirmatively even though I knew mine could not be the same kind of understanding as Rav Kalman’s.
    “Do you believe the oral Torah was also given to Moses at Sinai?” He was asking me whether I believed the various discussions of the Talmud had also been revealed by God to Moses at Sinai. He was putting me through a theological loyalty test.
    “No,” I said.
    “No? Then what is the Gemora?”
    "It was created by great men who based their traditions and arguments on the Chumash.” “Chumash” is the Hebrew word for the Pentateuch
    “You believe this?”
    “That is why you use this method [emending the text]?”
-The Promise, by Chaim Potok


I think that many of the disputes, the arguments and anger between people, specifically in a school like Templars, result from the fact that we do not understand ourselves what is permissible and what is unpermissable, what is logical and what is wrong, what exists in the realm of reason and what goes beyond it into heresy.

And then, even once we have reached the realm of heresy, the type of heresy that is simply a kind of questing after the truth versus the type of heresy that is deliberate, angry and violent, a spitting upon tradition and upon the beliefs of others.

I believe the Written Torah came from God, and hence from Heaven.

What, though, is the Oral Torah?

Is the Oral Torah everything that is outside our literal comprehension? Is it Rashi, the Rabbis, the Gemarah? What are the principles of the Oral Torah in which I must believe, as opposed to those which I may question?

We know that the Tzidokim, or the Sadducees, did not believe in the Oral Torah. Many of us know the stories of how they displayed their tzitzis upon the wall to fulfill the verse “and you shall see them” (Numbers 15:39). We have heard of how they sat in darkness on the Sabbath, lest they kindle a fire, even from an existing flame.

The Oral Law seems to be the work of mortal men, of people basing their ideas off of the literal Torah. This means the Rabbis may have erred, because their ideas are only as good as the manuscripts they had at their disposal. It is very logical to assume that in certain places one may emend the text. One sees this with the Vilna Gaon, the question arises- when can this method be applied and when can it not be?

There are some- like Reb Kalman- who would state this method is dangerous to the Torah. If we begin with the Gemara, we may come to emend the Prophets, the Scriptures, the Bible itself! It seems, however, that there is a firm distinction between the Torah and the Gemara- after all, the Torah does not deal with the discussions of men, but with laws and events.

The Gemara itself seems to prove that it was compiled/ written after the Torah was given at Sinai, and hence is based on the manuscripts at hand. There is a difficult passage in the Gemara, a very confusing one, that asserts man’s reason over Heavenly proofs. The discussion focuses upon Aknai’s oven. The passage is from here.

    Again he said to them: 'If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.'4 What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.5

R. Joshua exclaims that the Torah is not in heaven, quoting the pasuk from Devarim:

    יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא: לֵאמֹר, מִי יַעֲלֶה-לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ, וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ, וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה.
    12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?'

R. Jeremiah expounds upon this by stating that the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, it is therefore unchangeable, and hence everything one learns from the Written Torah through logic and reason would stand, as opposed to the actual appearance of miracles and heavenly voices!

If the Gemara is considered the Oral Torah, and the Oral Torah was given at Mt. Sinai, how could the Sages possibly argue with a Bas Kol and use as a proof that the Torah had been given at Sinai and hence one doesn’t heed voices from heaven? Doesn’t this contradict?

We then see God’s response to this seemingly rude/ presumptuous response.

    “R. Nathan met Elijah6 and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'”

My sons have defeated Me- my sons have conquered me.

If the Oral Torah was given at Sinai, and was set in stone, how could we possibly believe that this exchange between the Rabbis and God could occur? The Rabbis obviously seem to be using the Written Torah as their basis for proof, and God states “My sons have conquered me,” laughingly and lovingly, to say that God has been overruled, almost, by the knowledge/ logic of the Rabbis.

This also brings questions as to the purpose of the Gemara. Is the purpose of the Gemara to go after the truth? Because if it were, wouldn’t they (the Sages) believe in Bas Kols and miracles (uprooted trees and so on)? And if it is not, and the Gemara is rather a logical attempt of the Rabbis to deduce the laws from the Written Torah, then how could we believe it was given at Sinai? God says “My sons have defeated me,” which seems to aid the approach that human learning/ deduction is desirable, but deduction is only possible if it comes after the texts from which one draws the proofs! The Oral Law seems based on the Written Law!

Hence my confusion. How can I- we- anybody, really- say that we believe the Oral Torah was given at Sinai? What is the Oral Torah? What precepts of it may we question? What is set in stone? What is not? If the Oral Torah is based upon the Written Torah, isn’t it conceivable that the Rabbis may have erred? Indeed, that in some places they did err? In the aforementioned case, even though the Rabbis seem to have been halakhically wrong from God/ the Heavens, based on the text they are correct…

This is the type of question I would not dare ask at Templars.

If I did, I would have been told that my hashkafot were confused. I would have been told that I must “Accept, not question.” The entire cavalcade of concerned women would congregate about me, each prescribing a different remedy. “But Rashi had ruach hakodesh!” one would cry. “How could you possibly doubt the Oral Law?” another would exclaim. The third would shake her head mournfully as she looked down at my tortured soul, striving with the evil inclination, the yetzer hara.

For this type of question, I would be deemed a heretic.

But this question is not being asked out of hatred. I do not ask because I hate the Torah, because I don’t believe in it, because I am angry. I do not ask in order to spit upon the proofs, to trample laws underfoot. I ask to learn.

My intent is good.

But who will answer my questions? Who will understand them?

To those who teach at Templars, intent does not matter. One may mean well, one may even truly desire to learn. This is not acceptable. You cannot question. God forbid that you should question Chazal! Worse yet if you question the origins of the Torah! Apikores, heretic, apostate; what is it that you do?

For a question that did not include these theological parameters, for a question that was very small in terms of halakha, I was punished.

Not because of what I asked or what I meant. But because of the way the teacher understood the question. Because she believed I was questioning Chazal.

How dare I question the authority of the Rabbis?

But I was not questioning the authority of the Rabbis.

But to continue. Suppose I was? Suppose I had been? Suppose I had brought up this idea, talked about the far-fetched conclusions the Gemara seems to draw, ask about this approach, the ideas behind emending the text? Of admitting the possibility the Rabbis may have been wrong? Of asking about science and Chazal?

After all, if the Sages were using the knowledge and science accumulated during their time period, isn’t this subject to change? And if not, how do we explain inaccuracies? Ideas that seem outdated? What does it mean when Rashi states that mermaids exist?

There is always the possibility of truth. I believe in magic, in the magic of Ov and Yidoni, the terafim, the way in which the sorceress called upon Shmuel from the grave and brought him to Shaul. I do not see a problem with believing in mermaids.

But there are discrepancies, beyond mermaids.

What then? Do we state that the Torah was given at Sinai and hence cannot be argued? Do we state that the Sages are perfect and righteous, and it is our own limited human brains/ intellect that cripples us? Do we state that perhaps the Sages were wrong?

What do we do? What can we do?

The frightened women at Templars cannot permit this kind of thought. You do not ask. It is not possible. It is not permissible. You will be punished.

    “We had no way of knowing how Rav Kalman might react to any of our questions, and I had no desire to become the target of his sarcasm. So I stopped asking questions. I read without errors whenever I was called on, answered all his questions correctly, and contributed nothing on my own to the class. A Talmud class in which a student is fearful of asking questions can become a suffocating experience. I suffocated.”

    -The Promise by Chaim Potok

I suffocated, too.

They did not teach us Talmud, so it was not Talmud class that suffocated me.

It was English class. Navi class. Mishlei class.

Interestingly, not Chumash class, as I had a wonderful teacher. A woman who was not daunted by our questions, who welcomed them, who took each remark as it came and held her own. One of the most wonderful teachers I ever had.

But the other classes?

In the other classes, I suffocated. I could contribute nothing. If I did, it was angry, angry words and angry comments. Everything I said and thought, I did in anger.

I fought against the teachers. I raised my voice. I tried reason, I pleaded with them, I mocked them, and in the end, I learned to hate them. To sit sullenly and stare at them, to aim my hatred and unhappiness at them. To suffocate.

But even suffocation reaches a point where the victim kicks and cries and grasps at floating straws, flailing and drowning even as she does so. When I broke. Cracked, as it were. There had been small instances, minor clashes, angry stares and strikes, whispered comments.

It came to a head in eleventh grade.

I would not go quietly to the slaughter. I began to talk.

It was what I said that got me in trouble.

Because we weren’t supposed to think at Templars.

We were just supposed to accept.

Accept what the teachers said. What they themselves did not know, but had heard from second parties, from third parties, from Rabbeim they would not name. What they themselves did not understand. These women, versed in obedience and in indoctrination, unable to form a cohesive thought amidst the lot of them.

These people, whose instinct was to jump upon others, to shred them to pieces, to force them to be silent in any way they knew how. Who would attempt kindness and move on to force.

They were not cruel on purpose. They did not do this to hurt me. They felt no hatred towards me.

They did this to help me.

It’s that which scares me so.

When people are misguided, when people believe that their actions cause a glorious revolution in the name of God, when they justify themselves by stating everything they do is meant for the good and is meant to bring the student closer to God, what can I do?

How can I fight them?

They won’t understand.

Because every word they speak, every time they give them half-answers, untruths, or simply command me to obey, they are doing it, not out of loathing, but out of a desire to serve God.

This scares me, frightens me more than you could know.

Because how can you fight it? How can you change it?

There doesn’t seem to be a way.


Mirty said...

These are very interesting, thoughtful questions. I hope you find someone in your life who will discuss them with you.

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I miss those days when with my friends I complained about the half answers and hurtful approaches that THEY perpertrated on us. I do it less now that I've joined the team of THEM...

I recommend Circles In The Sand by Sarah Shapiro, which you can find the whole text of at

It may be hard to print out, but you can easily cut and paste it onto Word. (I almost cut and pasted the whole article here...)

I need to read your post again, carefully. It strikes me as important.

Masmida said...

[smile] That's one of my favorite midrashim.

This is a very complete and thought out post. My comment, of necessity, will be much breifer and

less through, but I hope it give you some new tools to think about the Oral Torah and those who

teach it with.

Beginning with a midrash, the nature of which is a whole discussion in and of itself, but suffies that it

is a story (not necessarily literal) that illustrates a key thought (I must apologize if the summery is less

than smooth, it is my own imperfect memory)

When Moshe went up Har Sinai, he found G-d tying the crowns to the letters of the Torah.
"What are those crowns for?" he asked.
"These crowns are for future generations, who will expound on them." answered Hashem.
Hashem then take Moshe to the beit midrash of Rebbe Akiva. Listening to the shuir, Moshe sunk

further and further, he didn't recognize any of issues being discussed.
He turned to Hashem in horror
"Why did you give the Torah through me, if there are such teachers as this"
and Hashem replied
"Just listen"
at that moment a student raised his voice and asked,
"Where do we learn this from?"
and answered Rebbe Akiva,
" That is halacha Moshe M'sinai"

This is Torah she b'al peh.

At Sinai, Hashem gave Moshe the Ten Commandments, plus the tools to explain and expound on

them. Hashem may have given him additional material, look at the mefarshim in Yitro and Ki Tesa for a

more complete discussion as well as Seder Olam for a discussion of the chain of the mesora.

The Oral Torah is a certain amount of intial material known as 'halacha moshe m'sinai' which trumps

anything else. Then there is all thirteen rules of R' Shumel which allow us to explain and deduce

further understandings and applications of the law.

It's like the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to.

The oral torah is how we fish, how we understand Hashem's desires in a world where we cannot

speak to Him anymore through Neviim or see Him in His own home. It is the work of man and more than that the man is the essential part. No one who teaches torah can be a true teacher without being it.

This is what gemara is essentailly about.

The reason why we don't emend the gemara is because we assume
a) yiridat ha'dorot: which means they had more complete information from Moshe and greater spritaul level
b) The vilna shas is in fact called such because the Vilna Gaon went through dozens of different gersot [variations] in the text and selected that which he thought were the most correct.

The answer is those women, feel sorry for them. They were all concentrating on a different part of Torah then the one they were teaching. They were busy in mussar when they should have been learning pshat.

You're chumash teacher is the real teacher, the real source.

There is more to say but I want to think it over.

[i apologize if the content of my own blog is more fluff than content but it is primarily an excercise in creating an emotional investment in the intellectual knowlegde]

Chanukah Sameach

sarah shapiro said...

Someone sent me this blog, and as the writer of the piece "Circles in the Sand," I'd like to respond.

All the questioning here is much to my liking. You're doing what I would most wish us to do. May all of us -- not only children -- ask, think and wonder. We must develop both the "I don't know" in ourselves and the "I
know" -- which is a lifetime avodah, beset by ambiguities. If we try to reflect the whole infinitely complex process in any meaningful way, then
almost any statement on the subject has to be qualified, again and again. That's why there are many contradictory statements in the article -- not for
reasons of hypocrisy, but rather, out of a desire to see many sides of the same question.

The point of the article is indeed its concluding paragraphs.

Wishing you all the best,
Sarah Shapiro

Semgirl said...

This is the best discussion on this topic I have seen in a very long time. I would not believe you are only 17, if I saw you with my own eyes..

Chilled Yungerman said...

These are very interesting, thoughtful questions. I hope you find someone in your life who will discuss them with you.

It's easy to vent your frustrations on a blog but a two-way DMC is hard. Make finding a mentor a priority. Ask g-d to help.

Hatzlacha Rabba

ProfoundlyConfounded said...

Have you read any of Rav David Weiss Halivni's books? They may help you answer some of your questions. (More likely, they will spark more. Doesn't seem you will mind much.)