Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Rabbi and the Bible Critic

A certain rabbi once ran into a “freethinker” who considered himself quite a scholar. With hardly a word of introduction, the non-believer declared that he was learning Bible criticism and had spoken to many religious people who were unable to reply to the compelling questions he posed.
The rabbi asked the academic what Rishonim he had learned. The academic was obviously taken aback and his halting reply showed that he had never studied rishonim at all. He defended himself with the statement, “Clearly, the Torah must be a work that is complete in and of itself, requiring no added exposition by the rabbis...” he began.
“Anyone who thinks so has not learned it carefully,” replied the rabbi. “For example, the verse tells us, ‘and you shall slaughter of your cattle...as I have commanded you,’ yet nowhere in the rest of the Torah do we find instructions as to how we are meant to slaughter animals. Obviously, the accompanying instruction was transmitted orally—the oral Torah of the rabbis that you find superfluous.”
The academic was flustered for only a moment before blurted out his ignorant response, “There is no such verse.”
“Try parshas R’ei,” the rabbi replied. “And it’s not just there. Many mitzvos cannot possibly be fulfilled with only the written instructions. We are told to put ‘a sign’ on our arms and ‘a totafos’ between our eyes. What are these? How are we to manufacture the tzitzis that are to be placed on the corners of our garments? The list goes on and on and demonstrates clearly that the written Torah cannot be understood without the oral Torah.”
“But why was there an oral Torah?” asked the academic. “Why not write it all down?”
“Excellent question! The Maharal explains that the Torah is meant for every level, from small children to the deepest minds. It therefore has many levels of oral tradition imbedded into the text. In this manner the chumash relates to everyone since as one advances he learns what he can understand and not more. He also says that because there are so many details of the oral law it would be impossible to write everything down in any event.
“From Rabbi Eliezer in Sanhedrin 68 we see an example of this great abundance of halachos. He said that although he had learned much from his teachers, what he absorbed can be compared to a dog lapping at the sea. He was discussing the many details of each and every law, which cannot possibly be recorded without countless books. Life is complex, so why assume G-d’s word is not?”


Shiloh said...

How silly of him not to see that the one verse of building a fence to protect one from falling off a roof justifies the insane amount of fences added to the Torah. Oh, by the way, with tefillin, it's a metaphor, just like Rashi's grandson figured out.

joshwaxman said...

yet surely Rashbam wore tefillin. he labels this omek peshuto, but that does not mean that he disregarded derash as halachically binding, meaningful, or true.