Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Did the Torah's Patriarchs Follow Jewish Law?

Xtranormal has helped users create close to 10 million projects by turning their words into funny animated movies. User "krumbagel" has created a hilarious Xtranormal animation that successfully (and humorously) critiques the ultra-Orthodox notion that the Avot (patriarchs) in the Torah not only followed the Halachah (Jewish law) as outlined in the Torah, but even observed the mitzvot (commandments) that were set forth by the sages thousands of years later through the debates of the Talmud and the explanations of the Mishnah Berurah.

The video begins with the yeshivah bucher asking, "Can I say over a vort that I heard by my rebbe's house last Shabbos?" His interlocutor challenges him when he claims that, in the Torah, Jacob gave his brother Esau bread with the red lentl stew because there is a debate in the Talmud as to which blessing one says before eating lentls, and thus Jacob gave Esau the bread so he would perform the ritual hand-washing(!) and say Hamotzi (the blessing over the bread) without worrying if he was uttering the correct blessing.

I enjoy a fanciful midrash (homiletical explication of the text), but find it problematic when later rabbinic rulings of Jewish law are applied to the actions of the characters in the Torah's narrative. A great example of this is when I was putting my first-grade son to bed a few weeks ago on a Friday night. It's long been my custom to tell a Torah story to my children on Friday nights during our bedtime ritual. I was talking about the differences between the twin brothers Jacob and Esau when my son interrupted to tell me that his teacher at school taught him that Esau was bad because he would hunt and kill animals that weren't kosher. Really?! When I asked my son how it would have been possible for Esau to know which animals were kosher, he just shot me a blank stare. Oh well!

Anyway, here's krumbagel's video:


Unknown said...

It is easy and wonderfully entertaining to see the "absurdity" of the position critiques here. I wonder what the partial truth of the insight and intuition that ein mukdam v'muchar batorah...that linear time is not the determinative or only way in which to read the torah. What is the psychological and spiritual power of a state of awareness in which past/present/future are less boundaried. Linear time taken to extreme leaves enormous disruptions and ruptures which is as absurd as "eternal' time taken to extreme.

Rick Dorfman said...

Clever/Entertaining video, but it appears Alex completely missed the point and instead used it as ammo for division in the Jewish community.

To begin, every sect of Judaism believes in "stupid" things. For example, in liberal Judaism:

1) The rabbis said it was OK to drive to shul on Shabbat and then are left dealing with the fact that the community fell apart as everyone moved away from the shul.
2) Liberals believe that if we give a little bit more land to terrorists, that there would be world peace.
3) The community wants to remain, yet hires non-practicing, knowledgeable college students as "Hebrew School" teachers.

Next, the point made by the video is that modern day rabbis sometimes like to tell tales that sound nice, but when exposed they probably aren't real. In Judaism, we have had this tradition for all time-- it's called midrash.

There is a midrash that we eat milchigs on Shavuot because at the time the Torah was given, Jews were first taught the rules of separating milk and meat. That midrash would imply that every predecessor to Moses did not observe milk and meat separation. Sometimes stories conflict; they are told to make a point, or to inspire, not to reveal some deep hidden truth.

The fact is that the (made-up) Rabbi in the story told a tale to inspire people to keep kosher.

This guy Alex, has twisted the story to create rift within Klal Yisroel; so you tell me who is worse... the fictional rabbi or Alex?

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


It's hard to respond to your comments since they are based on a misreading of Alex's comments. Alex was being funny. He's good at that. Does he really think Orthodox Jews are all fundamentalist or stupid? No.

In any case, some comments about your list of 3 stupid things:

1) Conservative Jews had already moved out to suburbia (bigger homes well beyond walking distance to shul) when some rabbis issued a teshuva granting permission to ride back and forth to shul on Shabbat. Not the other way around as you describe it.

2) I'm not sure why you're bringing Israeli politics into this discussion. I won't address it only because it's not germane to this topic. So, let's save that for another time.

3) You call hiring college students as "Hebrew School" teachers stupid, but from my own observations this is often done in college towns where the students are the best option for teachers. I was hired as a religious school teacher at 18 years old in the first week I arrived on campus. I taught 7 hours a week for the next three years at that synagogue, becoming more comfortable with each class. I can honestly say that I wouldn't be a rabbi, Jewish educator, or serious Jew today had I not been given that opportunity.

Now, on to midrash. I clearly acknowledge in my post that I am a fan of midrash. Without midrash, we'd have a much less enjoyable or readable text. However, when midrash is viewed as fact it should be called into question -- as this animation does so well.

I like a good blintz on Shavuot, but I know that my ancestors a thousand years ago weren't lopping sour cream onto blueberry crepes on the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah (and it wasn't because they were Lactose intolerant either!).

Rick Dorfman said...

My apologies to funny Alex, I thought he was making a real comment.

Also, in re: Hebrew school... my point is that you have non-practicing parents who drop their kids off at Hebrew school, and they learn from non-believing teachers... there's not a real hope.

More than 1/3 of my (and Jacob's) class at Hillel has intermarried; that says a lot...

About driving to shul--- your point seems to indicate that conservative rabbinical permission to drive on shabbat was reactionary and inconsequential. I'd like to think a rabbinical teshuvah from centralized leadership in any movement should have *some* effect on that sect's worshipers, otherwise the teshuvah is pointless.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


I presume your statistic about the intermarriage rates among your day school classmates is a guess and based only on those classmates who have already married that you know about?

Regarding the "Driving Teshuvah," it was most certainly reactionary. The three rabbis who authored the teshuvah (including Detroit's Rabbi Morris Adler of Shaarey Zedek) were concerned that synagogue attendance would descend greatly with the suburbanization of Conservative Jews in the 1950s. They believed that some Jews would not be willing to drive to shul if they thought it was an affront to Halacha, so they reasoned that it was better to come to shul and be part of the community even if that means riding to and from the synagogue.

I would hardly say the teshuvah was inconsequential since it's still quoted today as a rationale for getting to and from shul. I'm not sure it's any better than the Orthodox Jews who park down the street and then walk the rest of the way to shul since the parking lot's blocked off on Shabbos.

Danny Steinmetz said...

Rabbi Miller, Nice summary of the issue. I think this video is important because it is reaching many orthodox Jews and reopening the debate.

I think you fell into a trap in summarizing the view of the ultra orthodox as believing that the patriarchs observed all Jewish laws. In fact, it is clear that the majority of medieval Jewish commentators did not believe that. It is a contested issue in the world of traditional Jewish learning.