Saturday, 13 December 2008

Cheftza shel Torah

While I was preparing my Insight last week,* I noticed a difference of opinions amongst the commentators and within the midrashim on numerous issues including the nature of Esav. To some Esav was one of the greatest rishayim, evil doers, of history. To others, Esav, while objectively not comparable in righteousness to Yaakov and his sons, was, in the context of that generation, not so bad. While this in itself did not really hit me as a new perspective -- I, of course, have seen over the years many disagreements in the Torah literature on numerous matters -- what hit me was the fact that in some of my Insights, I develop a concept based upon one perspective of Esav while in others I develop a concept based on another. This week's Insight was built upon the latter perception of Esav, that he was not so bad, but many other Insights were based upon the former perspective that he was a terrible rasha. What does that say about my Insights over the years in that I fluctuate regarding these different viewpoints? The fact is that I am sure, over the years, I have developed some ideas based upon one perspective -- one side in an argument -- while in others I based my ideas based upon another perspective -- including the other side of an argument. Should I not be consistent in my presentation of Torah?

The fact is that, in regard to the actual personality of Esav, I would answer a question by responding that there is a machloket, a disagreement. The fact is that actual knowledge of Esav's personality is not really my concern and I can live with accepting the reality that I really don't know. In stating that the study of Torah is not a history lesson, we also state that the basic issues of history, including the actual personality of historical figures, is also not really our interest. Our interest, rather, are the ethical lessons that we can learn from these presentations. In that regard, both sides of the machloket are not only equally valid but have equal value in presenting a Torah idea. The bottom line is that ideas developed using one or the other viewpoint still represent, even if contradictory in some basic assumption or perspective, an idea that is acceptable with the corpus of Torah thought. Both are a cheftza shel Torah. Both represent an idea that in the broad gestalt of Torah thought would have to be deemed acceptable. While the actual solution to the question upon which the commentators may disagree would inform us of which position is correct within the confines of this specific case, the fact that a specific idea can even be contemplated and considered and accepted by some within the world of Torah, must inform us that this idea -- even if we disagree with its application is a specific context -- has validity as a Torah thought.

I believe that this idea is actually most important in understanding the concept of eilu v'eilu. While one idea may be accepted as the actual psak l'dorot, the fact that the other idea existed and was considered a possibility must mean that the one who contemplated this idea -- even if he later rejects it on some technical ground -- must mean that the other idea was, at least, perceived as a possibility within the general corpus of Torah. Furthermore, if someone I recognize as a great talmid chacham presents an idea, even if I disagree with its correctness on technical grounds and side against it in psak, the idea must be accepted as theoretically a possibility within the corpus of Torah. It is a cheftza shel Torah. It such has value within our analysis of the ideas within Torah.

Returning to the case of Esav, since I am not really interested in what Esav was really like, the ideas that ensued from both perspectives of Esav do have value in our understanding of Torah. Thus, in discussing the broad realm of Torah ethics, it is not really contradictory to develop a general Torah ethical perspective quoting perspectives from both sides of the technical argument of what Esav was really like. If both ideas exist within the realm of Torah, they are both a cheftza shel Torah. They both have a place in trying to understand the corpus of Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

*For those who may not be familiar with them, the Insight is a short dvar Torah that Nishma puts out almost every week. To see examples of past Insights, see the Nishma website at To receive more recent Insights and future ones, please sign up on the Nishma mailing requesting Insight by email (they are also available in snail mail in groups of five).


Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Out of curiosity, then, does it matter to you if the story in question is actually true?

I ask this as a member of a community which accepts scholarly criticism as a significant lens through which to view the Torah, but that's a lens which often calls into question the historical validity of many parts of the text. In other words, scholarly consensus is that the stories of Bereshit are possibly (even probably) a-historical.

I don't expect the Orthodox community to accept these views, and that isn't the point of this comment. Rather, I'm just wondering - if these views were to be proven, would that make the stories in question useless? If it's possible to learn valid Torah lessons from a point of view about Esav which is not historically true, then is it possible to learn valid Torah lessons from a entire story which is not historically true?

I'd love to hear the thoughts of my more traditional neighbors on this!

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I have to believe, given the enormous divergence of opinion regarding many issues of fact, that, with some limitations, it really doesn't matter if some of the stories, even within Tanach, are true. Having said this, I would also contend that we still do need some, and I would say powerful, reason for stating that something is not true. This would be similar to the idea of ein mukdam u'muchar l'Torah, that the events in the Torah are not necessarily presented in historical chronological order. There are many commentators who only relunctantly make such an assertion because they feel forced to make it -- otherwise one should assume chronological order. Having said all this, though, there are certain historical events that clearly, to maintain Orthodox theology, one would have to assume was true. The most significant example of this is, of course, Revelation at Sinai. But what exactly happened? Lots of different opinions and even on a matter where there is agreement -- often we can ask what does it mean anyways as we do not have the frame of reference to understand the idea anyway? For example, what does it even mean that they saw the sounds?

One time Nishma published an article that argued that Achashveirosh was not really an evil person, just a partying fool. A person challenged me for publishing the article as it disagreed with the view in the gemara that describes Ahashveirosh as a rasha. I responded that there were also Talmudic opinions that would support the contention of the author that he was not a rasha. The person responded with the contention that one must accept both opinions as true. But the two opinions are mutually exclusive? It must mean that the concept of Eilu v'Eilu does not mean that contradictory facts have to both be accepted as true. It must mean that the concepts behind the presentation of the facts must both have validity. Afterall, Torah is neither a history book or a science book. That, again, does not mean that the facts are not, at all, important and, again, some things do have to be taken as true within Orthodox theological principles. (I could develop the idea of why a belief in Revelation as a historical fact is fundamental to Orthodoxy but that is not for now.) But it also does not mean that we have to take everything as historical truth -- even the contradictions.

As to the issue of critical study of Jewish works, I would say that the greatest problem with it, for many Orthodox individuals, is that it is based on the assumption that the Torah is not the work of God. That in itself not only leads to certain conclusions that would be problematic to Orthodoxy but the problem with the method essentially, for many, invalidates any conclusions. While I would not take such a strict view of such works, the absence of a belief in the Divine origin of the Torah does colour my reading of critical studies.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

This issue of being able to live with contradiction is one of my favorite topics in Judaism. I recommend checking out the brief article at: for another take on it.