Thursday, May 27, 2010

Where's the line?

I was at a meal on Shavuos at some religious friends of mine, the kind that are open-minded enough to not really care that I'm not religious; the kind of people for whom I don't ever have to pretend to be something I'm not. Unlike some of my ex-frum compatriots, I don't have any problem hanging around religious environments (well, certain religious environments), and I really don't think less of people just because they subscribe to religious ideas which I disagree with (again, certain religious ideas). But at the meal, something happened which prompted me to look a bit more closely at that fine line between what I consider normal religious behavior and the kind which I think is just short of crazy.

This particular group of people were a typically varied crowd of single men and women from the Upper West Side, most of whom were Modern Orthodox, some only nominally frum, some - like myself - not religious at all. At one point one of them launched into a classic Shavous dvar torah, and began expounding on the tradition of why people stay up learning on Shavuos night.

When it comes to shabbos meal divrei torah, my typical reaction is to just tune out entirely, as in most cases, such divrei torah usually fall into one of two categories, both of which I find utterly mind-numbing: There's the sort where some obscure textual inconsistency is reconciled by dredging up some even more obscure textual reference. And there's the kind where the inconsistency is reconciled by anachronistically inserting the persons ideological worldview into the text. Neither of which I (and to my cynical eye, anyone else at the table) have any interest in really listening to.

But this dvar torah was of a different sort. The guy was not content with simply reconciling an inconsistency, but he chose to invent a new one out of whole cloth, just so he could make his point when trying to address it. Ok, so I've seen this style too, it wasn't really new to me, but what started to grate on my nerves was that he was solving the problem he created by imposing some new-agey pop-psychology ideas onto the mental state of the Jewish People at Sinai. And it was at this point that I started to get annoyed at what I was hearing. Things only got worse when the rest of the table - people who I thought were of a more sophisticated intellectual bent regarding Jewish tradition - started seriously debating the merits of applying Gladwellian quasi-scientific ideas onto the midrashic narrative.

The same feelings surfaced when the conversation turned to why dairy products are traditionally eaten on Shavuos. As I heard supposedly intelligent people seriously explaining how the reason we don't eat meat is due to the dearth of kosher dishes after the giving of the torah, I found myself looking around in amazement, and thinking to myself, "Am I the only sane person here?"

But upon further reflection, I couldn't help wondering, why was hearing these ideas so particularly infuriating to me? I wasn't troubled by other things going on around me. It didn't bother me that they were commemorating the most dubious of historical events - that a nomadic tribe received a set of laws from a heavenly deity who transcribed them to a man who spoke to the being on a mountaintop for 40 days. It didn't vex me that they felt it necessary to make a blessing over a cup of wine before eating the meal or that they found turning on a light switch to be deserving of death. So many of the behaviors and beliefs of the frum person don't bother me at all, yet in this case, and in so many others, when I look at what's happening in front of me, or what's being said by seemingly intelligent people, I can't help wondering, "What the hell is wrong with these people?!"

Where is the line? Why do some things seem acceptable, normal, even possibly healthy, and others seem preposterous, foolish, and naïve?


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mOOm said...

I would agree with you. There is a difference between reading the text of the Torah and appreciating it for what it is and also in carrying out the rituals which have been done for a couple of thousand years more or less. But it's different to argue some bogus argument for something and actually believe that that is literally true.

David said...

I fully sympathize. It's beyond me how otherwise intelligent people enjoy learning gemara splitting hairs over bullshit. I learned for years in Yeshiva. Hated most of it.

Moshe said...

There are more things in heaven and earth, Hedyot, than are dreamt of in your history and science.

Are you similarly disturbed when litery critics interpret a play, novel or poem in a multiplicity of ways, many of which are mutually exclusive, and may have nothing to do with the author's intent, or reality?

Now, you may protest that these litery critics, unlike "fundies", don't profess that the play, novel or poem they are interpreting is literally "true". Rather, they seek to demonstrate certain "truths" (moral, political, psychological, etc.)are implicit in the text.

Well, the "truth" is that the midrashic interpretation of the Torah is not too different from the literary approach described above. The difference , of course, is the claim that certain ultimate insights in the text have a divine origin. That claim is not something that can be scientifically proved or disproved. It is metaphysical.

In contrast, the reality of the "history" set forth in the Tanakh is certainly something that can be debated rationally. Last time I looked, no great authority had ever made it an article of faith to believe that B"Y lacked meat dishes in the desert.

The ikar is not history. As chazal actually stated, if we wanted to write a history book, we could have done a better job than the Torah. The issue is how shall we live our lives . And it was the Torah that first taught the world that each human being has absolute value, that we can improve the world, and that a house built upon injustice will not forever stand.

So, to answer your question, viewing the historicity of the narratives of the Torah as the ikar is indeed "preposterous, foolish, and naïve". Trying to probe the text for spiritual insight is not.

G*3 said...

> Why do some things seem acceptable, normal, even possibly healthy, and others seem preposterous, foolish, and naïve?

I would guess it has to do with familiarity. Things like Shabbos and Kiddush are very familiar, to the point where they fade into the background. Inane divrei torah, on the other hand, are each different enough that they become noticeable; once noticed they are examined; and when examined are found to be ridiculous.

Shilton HaSechel said...

It's so annoying when people discuss silly midrashim "intellectually". It's one thing to believe stupid things its another to discuss it the way you would discuss science and history. I wish people would just get along with their stranger beliefs without having to figure out how many angels can fit on the end of a pin. I can imagine people having heated debates about what species of snake talked to to Chava or how many decibels was God's booming voice at Sinai. I guess it's the Gemara's fault for treating Judaism like a science and leaving us with this annoying legacy.

Anonymous said...

people (like me) seriously debate the silly metaphysics of shows like Lost despite knowing it's all made up. Why? because it's fun

The Hedyot said...

> I can imagine people having heated debates about what species of snake talked to to Chava...

Yeah, I think it has something to do with how "real" people take it all. If people want to use the stories of the torah as moral guidance or inspiration, then it feels ok to me, but when people start treating the stories literally, and analyzing them as if they actually happened with every flourish described in the midrash, it reveals a lack of sophistication. And when that literal-minded lack of sophistication is used to promote ideas and behaviors, I think that's what's so bothersome to me.

Moshe said...

"when people start treating the stories literally, and analyzing them as if they actually happened ... I think that's what's so bothersome to me."

How do you know that all these people really are taking the stories literally? To use the analogy of my prior comment, many scholars have passionately debated, say, what was Iago's motive for ensnaring Othello. They analyze the play as if it actually happened. They may even purport to derive certain insights from it. That doesn't mean that such people believe that Iago and Othello actually existed.

Perhaps the people at your yom tov meal, or at least some of them, realized that there are deeper truths than literal truths.

m-n said...

There's a bright moment of realization when it occurs to you that "fundamentalism" just means believing your religion is really true, even after the 1800s. Not contains truth, is true, in the same sense as used for everything else. once you realize it, incidents like the one in this post become much clearer.

The Hedyot said...

> How do you know that all these people really are taking the stories literally?

This is true, perhaps they were considering certain deeper truths. However, I seriously doubt it. Anyone who has spent time in chareidi circles knows that the masses view the midrashim as actual historical events. They think that there actually were 12 different "lanes" at krias yam suf. They think that god actually held Mount Sinai over the Jewish People's heads. They think that Og was saved from the flood by hanging onto the the ark.

Next time I'll ask for clarification, though.

Anonymous said...

I have been invited to several Shabbat dinner, and rarely has anything relevant or interesting been discussed. I imagine that it must be very boring to be Orthodox. I don't know if it's because they live rather insular lives or if it tends to attact those who see the world literally in black and white.

katrina said...

I don't think this has anything to do with being frum or not. I am Conservadox, and my husband and I recently joined a modern Orthodox shul. When I talk to some of the young couples, many of whom are Ivy-League educated professionals, I am utterly amazed at their inability to think critically about the midrashic tradition. They don't seem to separate it from the Torah at all. Some people just don't think very hard about some aspects of their lives. I find that depressing, but I don't think I can do anything about it.

Recreational Musings said...

I too am Conservadox, but spend most of my time (except holidays) at a small Orthodox shul. It drives me crazy that people don't separate the different sources and I think that often times Rabbis and "intellectuals" are grasping for making sense of something that can't be made sense of. Does that mean it is not true? No. But it does mean that those people are not really being intellectually honest and that is the problem. Better to admit faith than come up with faulty reasons, in my opinion.

But Hedyot, why does it bother you that the people at the Shavuot table were discussing science or psychology or philosophy? I don't see the problem with that. The Rambam was wrong in much of what he said because it was based on an Aristotilean viewpoint, but why does that mean his approach -- that of using modern science/theories -- is incorrect?

The Hedyot said...

It doesn't bother me that they were discussing that stuff. It bothers me that they were discussing it with the sophistication of a fourth grader.

When someone says a dvar torah based on a midrash, I don't mind it at all. But when they start analyzing the midrash literally, and discussing it as if it really happened exactly like the midrash says, and figuring out the technical aspects of how that could have happened or when they apply modern day norms to ancient tribal myths, then it drives me nuts.

Like I explained, one of the divrei torah was about how the basis for eating dairy was because the dishes of the B'nai Yisrael were treif because they hadn't known the laws of kashrus before matan torah.

Now, it's bad enough that they are making the most mixed up chulent out of a minhag (eating dairy) and rabbinic laws (kashrut of dishes), and applying those two concepts to an era when they most definitely did not exist, but then someone tops even that idiocy and asks: How could they not have known about kashrut? After all, hadn't Yakov studied in Yeshiva Shem v'Ever for twelve years? He must have learned the halachos of kashrut and taught that to his sons! And then the discussion went on from there about how they must have forgotten those halachos in Egypt, blah, blah.

It's this sort of juvenile approach to Jewish thought and tradition that makes me lose all respect for what frum people call "torah study."

G*3 said...

> someone tops even that idiocy and asks: How could they not have known about kashrut? After all, hadn't Yakov studied in Yeshiva Shem v'Ever for twelve years? He must have learned the halachos of kashrut and taught that to his sons! And then the discussion went on from there about how they must have forgotten those halachos in Egypt, blah, blah.

These are known as plotholes. Your friends are fanboys trying to fill in the gaps left by an author with a shaky grasp of continuity. The difference between them and the typical fan is that they think they’re talking about history.

The Hedyot said...

No, what's going on here is more than just fanboys trying to fill in plot holes. It's actually what Mis-Nagid has termed "The Genre Mistake." (Anyone have the link to that essay of his?)

What they are doing is akin to someone reading Aesop's Fables and upon hearing the tale of the race between the hare and a tortoise, starts analyzing the story as follows:

First of all, how can a hare and a tortoise arrange a race? Can they even communicate? And if they can, do they speak tortoise or hare? There's never been any evidence of the two species communicating, so it's highly unlikely that they did so here, so the story can't be true! And even if they could communicate, we know that tortoises and hare's don't inhabit the same environments, so it's impossible that the two species would ever encounter each other! Clearly the story is not at all true!

This is what it's like hearing frum people discussing torah.

Anonymous said...

Except that they then go on to explain, on a 'deeper level' how the race actually did take place.

What annoys me most, though, is when they make up a problem with the way the text (their text, I'm not the one telling them to read it) is written, then make up something silly to explain it. Or they come up with rules like 'the text can never have an extra word' then have to make something up to explain the, well, extra words.

Sarah said...

I don't know if this "helps" in any way, but I grew up Orthodox and was taught -- at Michlalah, no less -- that few of the midrashim are meant to be taken literally. All the rabbis I knew growing up were careful to distinguish between what was in the Torah and what was in Midrash. I love Midrashim BECAUSE they aren't meant to be taken literally; I like thinking about what lessons chazal were trying to teach us with these stories. It's for THAT reason it makes me nuts when people take them literally; they are missing the point! If you take midrashim as historical fact, you miss out on the deeper "truths," the ones that really matter.

tikun olam said...

It's unfortunate, but when I first left Orthodoxy, which was at about 20, the familiar, as G*3 mentioned, didn't bother me. It was easy to be around. I could sit in the women's section of shul with my hair covered if I was spending a holiday by my parents, no problem.

Fifteen years later I started reading the jblogs. It led me to furthering my Jewish education. I became more interested in coming to peace with my upbringing and understanding Orthodoxy through adult eyes.

Unfortunately what was once tolerable has become less and less tolerable. Over the years not only had I left beliefs behind, but I have replaced them with new beliefs, many of which make what was once just familiar, repugnant to me.

I found that line changed over time. I looked for peace but unfortunately, I didn't find it.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm preaching against the choir here, but I read that one of the Gaonim (R' Hai I think) was of the view that when one approaches midrashim/aggados, he should merely try to discern any apparent spiritual/ethical lesson to the aggadah. If none is apparent after sufficient thought is presented, you simply move on.

I have heard various theories behind the midrashim from within orthodox circles--ranging from belief that these were literal events (Moshe 10 amoz--really?), allegorical tales, even religious tall tales that were deliberately inserted into public orations to pique the interest of the listeners, and hold their attention.

The Real Moshe said...


Go away! By god we're all so over the quasi intellectual apologetics you guys continue to spew.

Literary analysis is just as dumb if people are trying to put words into the author's intent that was clearly never there (and most English departments do) though it's an intellectual exercise if you;re trying to find the "cookies" put in the story by the author or if, as someone mentioned regarding the metaphysics of Lost, you're just engaged in Creative Masturbation and happen to enjoy that sort of thing.

Scholars and other honest people enjoy looking at the Torah (and related volumes) that way and occasionally sprinkle it with a bit of masturbation and gladwelian pop-psy for fun; Reform and Reconstructionist Rabbis mostly stick to the bullshit form of dvar torah that's NOTHING but "dr. feel good"; and Orthodox folk - even really really modern orthodox folk - have their ikkrim that they're not willing to bend on. No, bananas growing out of the walls of the yam suf may not be one of them but many other things are, depending on what particular block you're on and what the young charismatic fraud (PhD) happens to feel that morning.

Reality however is still real and if you generally prefer it to religious, quasi-religious or pseudo-religious pablum then it gets damn annoying to see people rev themselves up into a sickly ecstasy as they expound upon the deep truths (that are always ever so helpful In Our Own Lives!) contained in some cannon or other.

Imposter, don't bother attempting a dialogue with me here because I'm not going to walk down this well worn route again. It's boring as all fuck.

Anonymous said...

Very much depends on inner feeling.
Very much depends on inner will.
Very much depends on inner discipline to listen to that will, to listen to what your inner desire says.

You write as if you had an urge to protect a truth which you feel or see or would like or wanted once to see in Torah, but you try to do so by negating other people's approaches.
Tora is not guilty for making them interprete Midrashim they way they want.
They're not guilty - at least they don't realise it - that you have your problems with them.
I think it's completely right to have problems with them. Not every shiur must be appreciated. The shiur where the heart listens up, this is a good one.
Everyone has its own needs.
I'd say rather thank you that many original "am haaretz" are frum instead of secular.

Remember it's much easier to response to black&white by attacing it in a black& white manner.
It's much easier to find negative aspects and condemn than to find positive ones and reconciliate and understand something.

Everyone has the potential to wake up once. Why do you condemn? Why don't you give them a chance?
How do you think G-d views you if you don't give others chances? In the whole blog I noticed very few, if any, ahavat chinam or ahavat israel. It's saddening, in my eyes, for the most of the condemnation could have been avoided.
Criticism, condemnation, cursing others, hate, it's destructive work.
Same as hopelessness, boredom, ignorance, fury, fighting against G-d,

Perhaps start doing some constructive work. And why not fighting with G-d instead of against.
He is not guilty. Why do we always tend to make othrs responsible for our own miseries?

And you may understand what I said both literally and abstract.

Best wishes for the time after 9th of Av.

Just Me said...

I just came across your blog. It's interesting.

Recently I've been thinking about the question you ask in this post, as I have the same issue. I don't have an answer for why some things make me furious and some things just don't bother me in the least.

The only thing I can think of is that in general I don't mind the rituals. Human beings need rituals. If humans are left without rituals, you will find them creating them. Turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, heros for superbowl Sunday, the secular wearing wedding bands and never removing them (unless they get divorced), prom night, etc. Cultures create their own rituals if they don't have a religion doing it for them. I generally don't mind going thru the motions. Its just "what we do" and what the heck, it's harmless, and it can even make some nice warm fuzzy memories when shared with friends and family over the years.

But when people start TALKING about frumkeit or Torah, which always comes along with "the rhetoric" - talking about all this stuff like it has monumental meaning and eternal significance, (which I don't believe it does) - it really gets to me. I feel like screaming "Why don't you all REALIZE this is all a load of crap?!?! You're attributing eternal significance and a HOLY mission to man-made "club rituals" and legends!"

It seems (in the goyish world) there is a stereotype called the "Angry Athiest". That is what I am. But I don't know why I get so angry about it.

Anyway, I like your Dayeinu's - they're classic and they're great!

Why did you stop writing?

Nothing new since May?

RW said...

I have an article somewhere that asserts that the Tikkun Leil Shavuot began when coffee-drinking was introduced into Tzfat.

Personally I've observed that for myself and others staying up all night makes a person too tired to engage intellectually after about midnight, and the next morning feel like shit and unable to focus on services at all. Until I take a nap I can't enjoy the holiday at all.

IMO it's a stupid custom that should be dropped because it's counter-productive to what it's supposed to encourage: increased study.

Michael said...

You possibly wont ever read this. Or if you do, allow it on.

IMHO the things that bother you the most are the ones that G-d loves the most.

Getting "high" on discussing and pondering those minutiae of history and minhag in the exact way you describe in the OP and in further interjections in the comments, goes beyond any requirement to obey the Torah, keep the laws etc.

This is pure Sha'ashuim to G-d. It is like the 5 Rabbis staying up engrossed all night on Seder night in ancient B'nei Braq, which we still celebrate to this day.

That conversation you sat through, illogical though part of it may have been (although surely kashering keilim is biblical - late Numbers, I think - you claimed it was Rabbinic) achieved immense impact in the spiritual realms, and reflected down huge blessing in this world.

I am not surprised that someone who knowingly or unknowingly has mainly associated themselves with the Other Side would find being at such a conversation excruciatingly uncomfortable, possibly without understanding why.

I would suggest the same may be true of other things that "irrationally" annoy you and others?