Wednesday, June 28, 2017

It deifies no man

The Torah does not seek to portray our great men as perfectly ideal figures; it deifies no man. It says of no one: “Here you have the ideal; in this man the Divine assumes human form!” It does not set before us the life of any one person as the model from which we might learn what is good and right, what we must do and what we must refrain from doing. When the Torah wishes to put before us a model to emulate, it does not present a man, who is born of dust. Rather, God presents Himself as the model, saying: “Look upon Me! Emulate Me! Walk in My ways!” We are never to say: “This must be good and right, because so-and-so did it.” The Torah is not an “anthology of good deeds.” It relates events not because they are necessarily worthy of emulation, but because they took place. The Torah does not hide from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men, and this is precisely what gives its stories credibility. The knowledge given us of their faults and weaknesses does not detract from the stature of our great men; on the contrary, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they been portrayed to us as shining models of perfection, flawless and unblemished, we would have assumed that they had been endowed with a higher nature, not given to us to attain. Had they been portrayed free of passions and inner conflicts, their virtues would have seemed to us as merely the consequence of their loftier nature, not acquired by personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.

Rav S. R. Hirsch (Bereishis 12: 10-13)

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Mishnah - A Reading

Dorothy lived in Kansas a wind destroyed four came seeking home the rabbis say wisdom

This is how the Gemara might tell the story of the Wizard of Oz. This is not to say that the Gemara is a bad story teller but that it is not a story teller in the way we are used to. It is a notebook written in short hand. The rabbi is supposed to tell the full tale. The Gemara just reminds him of the barest elements of the story.

The Mishnah is even more succinct. Here's how it might describe the USA's constitutional system:

Three groups. One enacts, one judges, one wages war.

Is there more to the subject? I think there's a little more to say about a political-legal system that came to dominate the planet earth.

Let us not forget what we often forget that the Oral Torah was not supposed to be written down, so when the danger of losing it all due to exile necessitated redaction, the redaction was kept to a minimum. The Talmud is not a textbook. In our era of computer based publishing, it's pretty darn easy to put many words on a page, much easier even than in the movable type era, where is was incomparably easier than in the era of monks writing in long hand, which was easier still than in Mishnaic times where paper was a commodity. We are used to books spelling out every detail of a message. This is not how most Torah commentary was written over the centuries.

This means that a shiur cannot consist merely of reading from a text. However, that is exactly what some shiurim have become, particularly regular shiurim. Sometimes, you get the photocopy of sources which the speaker uses to patch together a lesson of some kind. That he reads the sources too quickly without telling you where to find them on the page is a separate problem of our problematic approach to Hebrew instruction. I have discussed that elsewhere. But the regular shiur, the kind we experience most of the time, is oftentimes a reading. Whether it be Daf HaYomi, Mishnah, Mishneh Berurah, Duties of the Heart, or Tanya, the "maggid shiur" just reads without offering much in the way of background, explanation, or insights.

For baal habatim attending an hour a week class, it's survivable, even though not edifying. For children in school it's soul murder. The boredom is crushing. The kids - boys in particular - go 8-5 in a crowded barren classroom listening to a reading of cryptic material. Some rebbes don't explain. It's almost as if doing anything but reading straight text is considered "goyish." when really reading straight from a text without adding anything is goyish. But mostly it's just ignorance.

Many rebbes today are not educators. Some are warm people but that doesn't make them interesting, doesn't mean they know how to teach. Teachers have to get into the minds of students. They need technique. Oftentimes, the best teachers were not the best at their subjects. Thus, they developed tricks for acquiring the material. The gifted student is often the worst teacher. A teacher, like anyone in any profession, needs skill.

This involves more than warmth and even caring. I think many of the more well meaning people in Jewish education or rabbinics have gone a little bananas with personal warmth, stories, and song. I once spent a Shabbos with a family that does kiruv at an elite university. I was shocked to see this very well meaning nice guy fail to share with the students any Torah at his Shabbos table. His whole angle was warmth, singing, and showing off his children in an attempt to advertise the joys of family life - as if non-frum people cannot have family life. Is he really going to compete with the world of secular entertainment with a few zmiros? What he needed to do was say something meaningful before these very bright and intellectually included college students.

Perhaps because Torah Jews, particularly the children, are a captive audience, some schools don't make an effort to be engaging. After all, you have no choice but to attend the school and they can always threaten you with gehennom, that catch all for religious motivation. The focus, particularly in Israel, seems to be more on gaining admission to school, ie the family winning over the school, rather than the school winning over the family or the student. Also, there is an assumption today, an arrogant one, that the yeshiva world conquered Reform, is sitting pretty, and can wow anyone with the magic of Torah. By magic of Torah I don't mean the magic of true Torah thought, but anything connected to Torah. A cold reading of a cryptic text will do. Just open the book and the magic just flies off the page. This is magical thinking and results in part from excessively mystical understandings of the effects of limud Torah.

What is the connection to Torah Im Derech Eretz? Just look at Rav Hirsch's writings, he makes ideas come alive. He doesn't just recite pasukim. The German approach is to focus on the world that we actually live in, not mysterious higher worlds. As Rav Hirsch wrote:
God's Law does not deal with things that are supernatural or not of this world; instead, it includes every aspect of a full life which can be lived here below. Therefore these laws are עדות, the testimony of God's truths for all our earthy relationships, and hence they are עדות, because they crown all our earthy affairs with the ornament of human nobility which find favor in the eyes of God. The prerequisite for the true fulfillment of God's laws is knowledge, as thorough as possible, of all the realities of human affairs on earth. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Tehillim 119:99)
I fear that the contemporary focus on the kabbalistic effects of limud Torah have produced an other worldly approach to it. This combined with our forgetting that the Oral Torah is Oral even when printed in books has resulted in some very poor educational practices, not by everyone obviously, but by too many.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sivan 24

Rav Hirsch was born on this day in 1808.

"God has dispersed Yisrael among the nations as עבד and שפחה, as "servant" and "handmaiden," to labor on behalf of God's great work on behalf of mankind. Yisrael is called "a servant" to indicate the arduous labor inherent in its outward position vis-à-vis the nations, and "a handmaiden" to denote the joyous fulfillment of its life's task within the sphere of its own homes, families and communities. For the proper discharge of both these tasks Yisrael needs extraordinary spiritual and moral talents and energy; and it is for these faculties that Yisrael looks up to God its God even as a "servant" and a "handmaiden" would look up to their Master." (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on Tehillim 123, 2)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Criticism of German Orthodoxy

I never hold back when I see criticism of German Orthodoxy from any reliable source. From the book the Transformation, criticism of GO for bringing Zionism into the Agudah.

page 34:

page 35


page 36:


page: 38 

So the book goes on to say that with an imitation of style in place the Agudah took on other Mizrachi attitudes such immigration to the Holy Land not out of sheer desire to live in there but as part of an in-gathering of exiles, an idea promoted by Mizrachi in its package of notions that the modern secular state is part of the redemption. I can testify that I have observed this notion in the words and actions of many yeshivish people. However, one can see from Rav Hirsch's many comments on the subject of the Torah and the land, that land without Torah is pointless and dangerous, that there's no nation without Torah and no redemption with Moshiach or teshuvah.