Still Rock and Roll to Me: Reflections on New Wave Tanach

A few weeks ago, to my surprise, I was invited to share a 15-minute D’var Torah in the coveted Thursday night pre-Maariv slot at my local right-of-center community Beis Medrash. In the days leading up to my D’var Torah, I was joking with another local YU-affiliated educator about how my D’var Torah would likely be received by the Lakewood-centric crowd. As readers of this blog may have noticed, I tend to follow the new school of Tanach methodology which prefers original inferences based on such techniques as repetition of words, changes of names, continuity in theme, and various forms of subtle wordplay, rather than “saying over” the idea of a latter-day Torah scholar or even a medieval one. If Rashi or another commentary is to be quoted, it is with a similarly critical eye and mainly serves to prove or disprove an independent philosophical inquiry, but not necessarily with objective reverence for the authority being quoted. These are elements of the New Tanach School which began with Dr. Nechama Leibowitz and has continued with Rabbi Menachem Leibtag and Rabbi David Forman and which, while liberating, are far removed from the sort of Divrei Torah usually heard at this Beis Medrash. The standard fare is heavy on quoting earlier or later authorities and telling related (or totally unrelated) stories which mainly serve to confirm, and almost never call into question, the accepted philosophical doctrine. Occasionally a truly sharp question opens the D’var Torah, but it is soon diluted by unrelated stories and does not end up being answered, presumably because the presenter could not find an answer in any book on his shelf, and he did not deem himself worthy of developing his own answer without a guru holding his hand.

The D’var Torah that I shared that night in the Beis Medrash explored the beginning of Parshat Vayigash, when Yehuda remembers that Yosef told him that if Yosef could not “put his eyes” (ואשימה עיני) on Binyamin, the brothers would not see Yosef’s face anymore (לא תוסיפון לראות פני). I asked why such overtly visual images were used, and pointed out similarly visual instances throughout Yosef’s life, noting that whenever Yosef’s eyes or appearance are mentioned, he soon gets into trouble. So why mention “putting his eyes” on Binyamin? I conjectured that as the only other son of Rachel, both Yosef and Binyamin struggled with the question of how to translate their mother’s attribute of beauty (she is noted as יפת תואר ויפת מראה) into a form which did not get them into trouble – a struggle innately connected with their eyes. By asking to connect their eyes, Yosef was asking to see how Binyamin had learned to cope with the same problem that Yosef had struggled with his whole life. Yosef’s three words of advice to Binyamin in Parshat Miketz – “ה’ יחנכך בני” – form a pithy but highly meaningful understanding of this challenge: Beauty is good when it is an expression of Divine will, but not when it is as an artificial superimposition. (See link.) Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, yes, but true beauty is a reflection of the Divine eye above. I wrapped it all around Chanukah – the 8th day (often called Zot Chanukah) is the day which recalls the leadership of Menashe, who was more connected to Egyptian society, underscoring the importance of outwardly expressing the beauty of Judaism to the world around us rather than keeping it bottled up as did Ephraim (Day #7). While seemingly at odds with the Chanukah message, I offered that this is exactly the point of Chanukah – not to reject beauty, but to understand its power and how to express it properly, a message which Rachel’s sons likewise needed to learn.

Sure enough, to the amusement of both myself and my YU-type friend who was standing nearby, the Menahel (administrator) of the beis medrash found me immediately after the D’var Torah and asked, “Where did you get that from?” I danced around his question – the best I could offer was that the piece about Chanukah was inspired by an idea of my wife’s cousin, the Ner L’Meah, in one of his less well-known books, but I had to admit that I had actually completely changed his idea because I didn’t agree with it (as explained at the link above). He seemed surprised by the extent of the originality of my D’var Torah and offered only that he hoped it would not take another eight years for him to ask me to speak again. I heartily agreed, if not for the same reasons.

This experience was still in the back of my mind when I saw that this morning’s Lookjed (a Bar Ilan University listserv for Jewish educators) contained the continuation of a fascinating thread about whether we should stop sending our teens to Israeli Yeshivot because of the possible influence of extremists with ideologies that promote violence or hatred of other Jews or of non-Jews. Rabbi Dr. Shalom Berger translated part of a related article by Yair Sheleg (full article at this link) which posits that the Dati Le’umi community is unduly influenced by an approach to Tanach study which ignores milennia of tradition in favor of a more open and unfiltered approach (what Sheleg calls “חשוף,” exposed). Here is part of Berger’s translation of part of Sheleg’s article:

The return to the study of an ‘exposed’ Tanakh without the filter of thousands of years of traditional interpretation has become one of the proud successes of National-Religious education over the past few decades. It is considered to be one of the central differences between National-Religious and Chareidi education. While the Chareidi student does not interact with Tanakh “as is” and knows it only through the lens of the Talmud, Rashi and other commentaries, the National Religious student comes to engage with the Tanakh itself, connecting with the places where the Biblical stories occurred in an attempt to understand the full historical circle encompassing biblical events and their own contemporary experience. This approach had a heart-stirring romanticism to it, but now its dangers have become clear. The exposed Tanakh writes about revenge; the exposed Tanakh commands to have no mercy; the exposed Tanakh calls for the total destruction of Amalek and the nations of Canaan …

Sheleg’s article begs the question: Did I go too far in implanting my own ideology into Yosef’s head? Did Nechama Leibowitz go too far in extracting meaning from the different names of Yishmael by his various relatives? Did Dr. Beni Gesundheit go too far (link) in creating an original paradigm for Tefillah based on phrases from Yaakov’s dream at Beit El? Is the New Tanach School at odds with millenia of tradition? Are we drifting too far from mesorah and allowing Dati Le’umi children to explore Tanach unshackled and without the guidance of traditional sources which would curtail misunderstandings like the ones of those recent murderous young men? Or, like Reform or Chassidism before us, was the new approach to Tanach conceived on solid ground because its founders were steeped in learning, but its next-gen followers have adopted the ideological skeleton while lacking the substance behind it that makes it function in a meaningful way?

I am only beginning to think about this issue now and am open to being convinced otherwise, but I had previously only thought of Torah Shebe’al Peh as critical to understanding the Halachic areas of Tanach, not the stories of Bereishit or Shemot or the Megillot, for example. For one thing, we have little to go on in understanding such stories through the lens of the Talmud. Midrash is often self-contradictory and is not presented as a definitive or overtly methodological approach in the same vein as Talmud, Rambam, and Tur are in our approach to Halacha. (Nor does Midrash cover most of Nevi’im anyway.) Moreover, the New Tanach School’s approach is not conceived to subvert the valuable Midrashic lessons when they are presented, but rather takes a different tack entirely by re-imagining how Tanach is interpreted, not what its interpretation should be.

Reading Sheleg’s Hebrew article, however, it sounds as if he believes that the stories of Tanach had been understood differently for thousands of years based on a consistent Talmudic or Midrashic methodology. I would argue that those stories had not been understood based on any mesorah at all for all that time.

היסוד האחד הוא הרומנטיזציה של התנ”ך: החזרה אל ספר-הספרים – ודווקא התנ”ך החשוף, ללא תיווך הפרשנות בת אלפי השנים – נתפסה בעשורים האחרונים לאחת הגאוות הגדולות של החינוך הדתי. היא גם נחשבה לאחד ההבדלים המשמעותיים בין החינוך החרדי לדתי-לאומי. אם ילד חרדי אינו מכיר כלל את התנ”ך “כמות שהוא” אלא רק בתיווך התלמוד, רש”י, ושאר פרשני הדורות, יבוא הילד הדתי-לאומי ויתוודע לתנ”ך דווקא כמות שהוא, יתחבר למקומות שבהם אירעו סיפוריו ויחוש את סגירת המעגל ההיסטורי בינו ובינם.

הייתה בגישה הזו רומנטיקה כובשת לב, אבל עכשיו מתבררות גם הסכנות שלה: בתנ”ך החשוף אכן כתוב “ואנקמה”, בתנ”ך החשוף אכן כתוב “לא תחונם”, בתנ”ך החשוף אכן מופיע ציווי להשמדה כוללת של עמלק ושבעת עמי כנען – ציווי שהחוקר היהודי-בריטי ג’ורג סטיינר אפילו טען שהוא, למרבה הבושה, רצח העם הראשון בתולדות האנושות.

Sheleg seems not to have spent much time inside the Chareidi school system, or for that matter inside a Tanach. The contemporary Chareidi approach to Tanach is not to learn it through a different lens, but rather to not learn it much at all. The idea that Chareidi schoolchildren are busy learning Tanach with lots of commentaries and Talmudic insight while the Dati Le’umi children learn it without those things is off the mark. In truth, the Chareidi children are not learning Tanach at all, while the Dati Le’umi children are learning Tanach with plenty of commentaries and what little Talmud there is on those stories, but those פרשנות בת אלפי השנים provide precious little תיווך because they dare not negate the sometimes difficult messages in the text. In particular on the earlier parts of Nevi’im, the פרשנות בת אלפי השנים would never argue explicitly with the messages of אנקמה or לא תחונם.

Having spent years learning Nevi’im Rishonim with various grade levels in American schools, I feel comfortable saying that no accepted פרשן ever negates the simple meaning of the difficult and bloody stories of Nevi’im, and they wade only tangentially into such topics as why Shimon and Levi thought it was a good idea to slaughter Shechem and his nation, or why Shaul felt it necessary to hunt down Dovid, or why Amnon felt it was acceptable to assault Tamar, or why Avshalom thought it was appropriate to hunt down and kill Amnon for assaulting Tamar. These are indeed extremely difficult stories, but no פרשן that I have ever seen – much less a Talmudic Sugya – has provided much in the way of a strong counterargument for these actions. The overriding goal of the commentaries is to explain, not to rationalize or apologize; the Talmud will occasionally call a character to task but rarely provides moralistic rejoinders for future generations to consider.

While I am still thinking about these issues and will likely return to them at a later date, I am not currently convinced that the “exposed” approach to Tanach – or likewise the New School of Leibtag and Forman, and I agree that the two schools are not precisely the same – are to be blamed for the radicalization of Dati Le’umi youth. I believe that even if those youth learned and memorized all of the Tanach commentaries and the entire Talmud, their approach to the stories under question would be largely unchanged. What perhaps may be askew – and this also may be worth exploring at a later date – is that the recent shift to a nationalistic viewpoint after 2,000 years in which nationalism was not on the radar screen has led to the Talmud’s appearing to have yellowed more quickly over the past half-century than it had in the many centuries before that time. The daily concerns of the average Dati Le’umi Jew do not call out to him from the pages of the Talmud in the same way that they may for a non-nationalistic Chareidi Jew or an American Jewish adult or child. But like a young child visiting a nursing home, the disconnect between the Talmud and certain parts of Israeli society is not due to their neglect of the Talmud as much as it is to the culture gap between the Talmud and the modern Israeli Jew.

Left without a primary historical text that does speak to those nationalistic, militaristic, and Messianic concerns in a way that contemporary Jews can understand, the age-old words of Tanach have appeared more resonant, even if (or perhaps precisely because) the primary goal of the Talmud and the Tanach commentaries over all that time was to implicitly ignore those stories as a by-gone relic that would never need to be dealt with in a hands-on way. But then what is a contemporary Israeli Jew to do if the concerns he faces on a daily basis are so hard to find in the Talmud? Has the Dati Le’umi community truly neglected the Talmud, or is it the Talmud which has neglected them?

This entry was posted in Communal Matters, Jewish Education (meta), Nach, Parshat Hashavua, Talmud / Daf Yomi. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Still Rock and Roll to Me: Reflections on New Wave Tanach

  1. Yoni Graber says:

    Fascinating post!! I read it from end to end and I think I agree with your assessment. Heck, Zilbermans teach (Charedi) children to memorize Tanach……this is without any commentary whatsoever. Few are in Zilbermans, I know, but I don’t think they are producing radicals…..

    • rebleib1 says:

      Right – what creates radicalism is not the absence of commentary but the absence of an all-encompassing worldview that incorporates all of the varied ingredients that make up the stew of Jewish life – or what we call Gemara. A narrowly militaristic weltenshaung devoid of a broad and nuanced character can breed what it has recently, tragically.

  2. Moshe says:

    It’s wonderful to have come across your learning. The 3rd floor Beit Midrash was a long time ago, but the sounds still sing.
    Your comments struck a chord with me, especially toward the end, as you mention the lack of moral apologetics from Talmudic or Parshanut sources. The episode of David and Batsheva is an excellent example of something a friend once called “the Chatati Paradox.” The gemara in Ketuvot discusses how David justified his actions with Batsheva and later Uriah, including conditional divorces granted to soldier wives and the like. But, the argument goes, if David really didn’t do anything wrong (the seeming implication of the gemara’s reasoning), why does he respond “Chatati” to the navi’s critique when he is later rebuked?
    The answer is not in the gemara, the parshanim, or even the Navi itself. The answer is in those classrooms you mentioned earlier. The teacher is the one who spins the story, either in the context of Tanach study or gemara study. One reading is that David is perfect, a supreme moral leader who never sinned in any tawdry, sexual way. The gemara shows clearly that David violated nothing! Teachers using this approach may assume that their students don’t know, and will never learn, David’s later admission of guilt (and the years of torment later, attributed by some parshanim to this sin). They are interested only in the explanation that shows the legendary figure as being truly as great as their Artscroll biography seems to say.
    The alternative interpretation of the gemara is that the justification was just that – a justification. It was still immoral for David to sleep with Batsheva, then engineer Uriah’s death. That he has a claim to some loophole only shows us how a great man could convince himself that something immoral was permitted. The greatness in fact reveals itself in David’s later admission – Chatati – that he understood the depth of his sin.
    The radical agenda is indeed rarely – if ever – in the sources. It is in the classroom, in the teacher, and in the perspective.

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