Monday, August 19, 2013

I wish the Charedi world had peer review

A comment I left on another blog, on a post about another outrageous statement a Charedi rav was purported to say:
I know that the Charedi world doesn't work this way, but I wish there was a publication process and peer review, like there is in the academic world. Otherwise, we depend on rumor and hearsay about what these rabbanim say. These endless conversations should not be about whether a famous rav said what he is purported to have said or not. The conversation should be about agreement or disagreement with these statements. It's ridiculous that so much time is spent discussing who said what.
If a well known rav makes a statement, it should be unambiguous and he can then be called upon to defend or explain himself. Vague statements from behind closed doors reported by followers with agendas should not be taken seriously.

Would Ibn Ezra have supported Zev Farber?

I'm still working on my longer post about my thoughts in response to the current brouhaha about divine authorship of the Torah kicked off by R Zev Farber's article on However, in the meantime, here's a couple of quick thoughts that were originally a comment to this post.
Rabbi Farber and others have sought to provide support for their views by quoting medieval commentators, such as Ibn Ezra, who questioned the divine authorship of very small parts of the Torah. Criticism of this approach has been along the lines of this sentence, by Yossi Bloch, in his post referenced above:
"There's a world of difference between saying that Abraham didn't have camels or live until 175 and saying that he never existed."

I agree that denying a Sinaitic event, or denying the existence of Moshe or the factuality of the exodus from Egypt is an entirely different level of magnitude than saying that some verses, or chapters, or even all of Devarim were not written by God. Some medieval commentators who may have opined the latter, nonetheless believed deeply that these events occurred and the people existed. The only dispute was did Moshe or even Yehoshua write a small minority of it.
Furthermore, it's obvious that even the most open minded of the Rishonim when it comes to the above would have seen R Farber's views as utmost heresy.
But does that matter?
The point of bringing up ancient or medieval opinions that question the divinity of some parts of the Torah isn't to assert that those commentators would have supported contemporary views that question the entirety of biblical divinity. The point is to show that there's a precedent for modifying beliefs about biblical authorship in the face of contradictory evidence. And that precedent has been shown to exist, no matter the degree.
Ibn Ezra and his rough contemporaries did not question Moshe's existence. In their day, no one did. Their world was divided between Christendom and Islam, with Jews on the fringes. In that world, Moshe's existence was history, and no one doubted it. Who knows what they would have believed the same evidence available to us today? And faced with new evidence today, is there room in traditional Judaism to follow the spirit of Ibn Ezra, even while espousing views he would have considered unacceptable?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The "off the derech crisis"

Today, Harry Maryles wrote about the "off the derech" phenomenon, which many have labeled a "crisis".

Harry makes some good and compassionate suggestions, such as families remaining accepting of their children, no matter the path they choose.

I'd like to look at this from another perspective, with just a few short points:

  • Who says that Orthodoxy is the right path for everyone? Even if you believe it contains ultimate truth, one-size-fits-all is a very doubtful proposition when it comes to religion.

  • Young, autonomous individuals should have the right to make their own choices, and those choices should be respected, not seen as mistakes that should only be tolerated in the name of compassion and family harmony.

  • Here is my biggest point: by declaring an "OTD phenomenon", Orthodoxy lumps all young people who have left that sect into one group. It lumps someone like Abandoning Eden, a blogger who is a successful academic and has a happy marriage, into the same pool as young yeshiva dropouts who may be on drugs and have no jobs, no marketable skills, and sometimes, nowhere to live. Not only is this disrespectful of the Abandoning Eden types, but far worse, it treats the very real problems of the young dropouts as symptoms of their having left Orthodoxy. And their real problems, which need solutions like rehab, job training, and support sytems, get ignored.

    Until we look at young people with such problems as individuals, we won't be able to help those who actually need help.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Egla Arufa and some drunk rabbis

This week's parsha (Shoftim) ends with the halachot of Egla Arufa, which also make an appearance in Bereshit Rabba 94:3


Scene: Roughly 2 millenia ago, a group of rabbis are sitting around somewhere in the ancient near east, getting drunk on some good wine

R. Yankel: Dude, this is good (hic!) stuff! 45 BCE! A good year.

R. Chazkel: Gimme some

R. Yankel: Hey, have you ever noticed that Rav Mendel is cross eyed? That's why his class is so noisy. He can't control his pupils!

R. Chazkel and R. Dovid: Groan! That's terrible!

R. Zevulun: Hey, when Hashem wanted to have a flood but save 2 of every animal, he didn't know who to ask. Then his buddy said, "I Noah guy"!

(R. Dovid looks daggers at R. Zevulun)

R. Levi: Hey, I once heard a good one from Rav Yochanan bar Shaul...

R. Chazkel: (interrupting) No, don't say it. His are the worst!

R. Levi: Hold on, this one is good! You know how Yaakov knew that Yosef was alive only when he saw the wagons Yosef sent? Because they'd been studying the halachos of Egla Arufa before Yosef left, and the wagons were a sign!

(stunned silence)

R. Levi: Don't you get it? Agala, Egla?

(others shake their heads with exasperation)

R. Levi: Screw you guys, it's funny!

(Unnoticed in the corner, a naive and innocent student is feverishly taking notes.)

A century or so later, the Amora Hoshaya is putting together Bereshit Rabba, and needs some more material...