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Chananya The Demolisher
Chananya Weissman has once again stepped up to address a festering issue in the frum community that most others seem afraid to confront (“Natural Meetings,” op-ed, June 9). The lengths to which otherwise sober and intelligent people will go to defend the shidduch system never ceases to amaze and alarm me, and Mr. Weissman does a bang-up job demolishing the wall of pretense and denial that surrounds it.
I don’t know how many failures of the shidduch system I myself am familiar with – I stopped counting years ago – but it’s obvious we have a system that’s simply not working for a growing percentage of Orthodox young people. And as with too many other problems in our communities, we take a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach and only rouse ourselves to castigate those who tell the truth about such things.
We could use a few hundred Chananya Weissmans in our organizations and yeshivas, which seem to be populated by an abundance of don’t-rock-the-boat, go-along-to-get-along types. And then we wonder why, for religious people, we sure seem to be burdened with so many serious issues.
New York, NY
Hidden Child Seeks Relatives
Chava Margules (her birth name), a hidden child of the Holocaust, was born in Sosnowiec, Poland in 1942. Her parents were Avrohom Margules and Leah Guterman Margules, H”yd. She is seeking information on the families Margules, Guterman and Dancygier from the towns of Sosnowiec-Bedzin (Bendin), Dabrowa Gornicza (Dombrova) and Szczekociny.
Anyone with any information may contact me at 718-232-7458.
Taking Midrashim Literally
What About Biblical Miracles?
Re: “Shortchanging Our Children By Teaching Midrashim Literally” by Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal (op-ed, June 2): I believe this is a question better left to recognized Talmudic scholars and authorities. As for Rabbi Rosenthal’s statement that “As our children enter the 21st century and its scientific mindset, it is obligatory for all educators to ensure that our children see the Torah in its most sophisticated light,” I wonder whether he’d use such language in referring to the accounts of malachim; miracles such as those that Moshe displayed in Egypt; the splitting of the Red Sea; etc.
Rabbi Velvel Straub
Having read Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal’s article, I feel compelled to stand in defense of poor Leah.
Rabbi Rosenthal relates two episodes concerning fourteen-year-old Leah and from there leads us to the premise that the yeshiva system is teaching Midrashim too literally – as “fairy tales” – and that the “effects are disastrous.” He then brings three sources that appear to back him up.
In Talmud Bavli (Sotah 12b), there is a disagreement between two tanaaim, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemia. One (the Talmud is not clear on who says what) holds that Batya sent her maidservant. The other insists Batya sent forth her hand and her arm stretched several cubits.
The Talmud and the later commentaries explain that the disagreement is actually over the translation of the word “amasah.” One says this means her maidservant, as the word amah in Tanach normally means maidservant. If it had meant her hand, it would have said yadah, the common Hebrew word for hand.
The other tanna holds that the word amah is translated here as both arm and cubit because in Tanach the correct word for maidservant for a person of stature such as Batya is na’arah, not amah, which is used for commoners. In fact, this expression is in the very same verse. Therefore, he translates the word amah as her arm and cubits (which is why it does not say yadah) to teach us that her arm stretched several cubits.
Since neither the Talmud nor the classic commentators decide definitively according to either one (which is probably why Rashi brings both to explain the verse), each account is perfectly legitimate. Therefore, in my view, Leah was perfectly correct in being dumbfounded when pushed to the wall to choose between the two. How could she know for sure? She wasn’t there when it happened. In fact how could anyone be one-hundred percent sure?
As for her experience in the college classroom, Leah could have explained to the professor and the class that this event is related by one of the greatest sages of Israel who, having lived almost 2,000 years closer than us to the event in question, seemingly would possess a better understanding of the events and times of the Torah.
She could also have pointed out that this sage devoted his entire life to the Torah and is still considered an expert all these centuries later. His words were recorded in the Talmud and have been studied, in the original text, by millions of scholars over the generations. There are also many classic commentators on the Talmud and the Chumash, all of them great rabbis in their own right, who quote him and take what he says quite literally.
There are a number of questions Leah could ask Rabbi Rosenthal. Why is it that in a time of miracles – a time when the Nile River turned to blood, locusts covered the land in a moment’s notice at the command of Moshe, and every firstborn in the land was struck at midnight (events clearly described in the Torah) – it is not acceptable to believe that a woman’s hand could stretch three times its length and then retract?
Surely Rabbi Rosenthal knows that Torah she’bichsav and Torah she’baal peh come from the same source – God Himself. Why, then, would he take one literally and not the other?
How would the rabbi explain the Mishna in Avos (chapter 5, Mishna 5) that there were 10 miracles that happened in the Bais Hamikdash? How about the countless stories basic to our history and faith, such as the one of Avraham being thrown into the fiery furnace without being harmed?
Of course there are Midrashim and aggados that are not to be taken literally. However, they are clearly explained in that way by the classic commentators. If Rabbi Rosenthal would look a little closer at the sources he brought he would see that they are speaking about those specific Midrashim.
From the very fact that the commentators explain those Midrashim as parables or metaphors shows us that they believe that in general the Midrash and Talmud should be understood literally. Why would a Jewish educator willingly take away beautiful and meaningful history from our children and water it down to “fairy tales”?
Rabbi Rosenthal Responds: Over the past year I have sought to begin a dialogue on the subject of Jewish education that I believe is vital to the continued health of the Jewish community. I am truly happy to see that so many people are interested enough to take the time not only to read the articles, but to respond to them, since my intention has been to stimulate thought and discussion.
As a Jewish educator, it is my firm conviction that we must always encourage all questions. It is in that spirit that I welcome the responses of both R. Velvel Straub and Zev Weinstein.
The thrust of my concern lies in my observation, as a rebbe and principal for many years, that most current chinuch, rather than inspiring our students with the beauty and wisdom of Torah, too often teaches them that Torah learning requires that they suspend disbelief, setting aside their intellectual faculties rather than further engaging and sharpening them.
As a result, many of our students harbor secret suspicions (which they are too often afraid to voice because their rebbeim will not welcome questions of this type) that Torah cannot stand up to rigorous intellectual scrutiny and/or feel that Torah is completely irrelevant to their lives as 21st century Jews.
It is not responsible to teach our children scientific method and then expect them to be satisfied with a “Be quiet! Smarter people than you have always thought this way” kind of answer. What should they tell their professors who say their religion is nothing more than an empty fraud? What will they think of a chinuch that has no better answers than “You aren’t qualified to ask questions”?
For the most part the reaction to my point has been very positive. There is a very large group of people like Leah who wish that their yeshiva education had provided them with the tools to show Judaism to the world as the way of life of an am chacham v’navon – a wise and discerning nation (Devarim 4:6).
Such an education is within our grasp. The Ramchal, in his introduction to Derech Tevunos (The Ways of Reason, Feldheim) speaks of making a Talmud Torah that is accessible and relevant to every single Jew. The Ramchal’s methodology leads the mind unfalteringly in the search for wisdom. He points out exactly what our rabbis of blessed memory meant when they praised King Solomon for making “handles” for the Torah. He was able to accumulate a large measure of wisdom with ease through the application of short concise rules. He further states that these principles are within the understanding of ordinary people.
Such a chinuch must demand absolute precision of terminology. I believe at least some of the rejection of the Rambam’s and Ramchal’s teaching regarding Midrashim is due to confusion over the difference between pshat and drash. Rashi, as referenced by Mr. Weinstein, clearly identifies the definition of “amasah” as “arm” as a drash. The translation of “maidservant” is presented clearly as the pshat.
This is also the clear basis of distinction between Midrashim and the miracles in the Torah. The miracles of the Torah are written as pshat and must be taken therefore as literal occurrences.
The derech presented by the Ramchal is the better way. We must found our chinuch on a derech tevunos that inspires our children to see the wisdom of the Torah with their own minds. This is the way to be an am chacham v’navon.
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