Monday, January 23, 2012

The Parenting Dilemmas of a Rationalist ZooRabbi

On Friday night, my six-year-old was excited to tell me what he had learned in his (charda"l) school. Last year, he had told me about how one frog miraculously became many, which prompted me to write a post bemoaning how drash becomes peshat (and see too this post). This year, things were even worse. His teacher had told him that the plague of arov did not only include lions and tigers and bears. It also included dangerous humanoids that are attached to the ground, like a vegetable, by a cord emerging from their navel (and which were able to come because God brought the entire patch of ground that they were on), as well as giant octopuses which broke through the roofs of the Egyptians' houses and unlocked their doors from the inside. My son, who knows much more than most six-year-olds about animals, expressed particular surprise at the vegetable-man - he had never heard of such a thing.

My dinner guests, who read my material, saw me wincing. Of course, I was familiar with both these views, which I discuss at length in Sacred Monsters. The first was presented by the Vilna Gaon, the second by the Midrash Sefer HaYashar. Needless to say, with all due respect to these authors, I see these explanations as ahistorical. There is no vegetable-man (and in my book, I explain how such a belief developed). And giant octopuses are probably not capable of such things, although they do come close. So we have recent anti-rationalist drash being taught as historical peshat. (This is not a problem unique to charedi or charda"l schools; modern Orthodox schools teach the same things.) Moreover, there is no particular value to being taught such things; it merely encourages children to seek wonder only in the supernatural and not in the natural.

But on the other hand, as my wife points out, undermining your child's teacher is deeply problematic. It's also not great for your child's self-confidence to dismiss an explanation that he is excited to share.

The next day, however, something happened that changed my mind. My eight-year-old showed me a book that she had gotten from school and enjoyed. It was a wonderful Hebrew children's illustrated storybook about the life and times of Galileo. The book explained how Galileo did not accept by rote all that his teachers taught him, deciding instead to evaluate matters for himself - and he was vindicated.

This is quite a strong introduction into the millennia-old clash between tradition and reason. But my eight-year-old and six-year-old had nevertheless read the story, and were both able to understand it. I reasoned that if they can read and understand such a book, it should be possible to carefully explain why I don't believe in vegetable-men, and to explain how other people disagree, but why one should still respect them. I attempted to do just that; and I also took the opportunity to explain to my eight-year-old, for the first time, and very sparsely and carefully, the controversy over my books.

I hope and pray that I was correct and successful.


  1. Why do kids like Harry Potter, Narnia, Hobbits, Father Christmas etc?
    Teaching them these midrashim brings a sense of wonder and mystery to the tanach and keeps the kids interested.
    Rather that than some dry biology lesson every day.
    There is plenty of time to for them to learn the rational approach when they get a bit older.

    1. In Rav Schachter on the Haggada, Rav Herschel Schachter is quoted as saying that non-Jews need to make up nonsense like Santa & the Tooth Fairy and that Jews shouldn't trick their children by drinking from Kos Shel Eliyahu while the kid is distracted opening the door.

  2. I'm sorry, Dan, I very much disagree. In this day and age of sheker, we need only hear the truth, because no kid is ever happy to hear there are no tooth fairies. Why lie in the first place. The truth is interesting. And it is so difficult to explain to 18 yr olds that one large frog didn't smash into thousands, because even I didn't know it wasn't true. But now that I think about it, just what really happened with the frogs, or any of the plagues for that matter? I thought all this was so miraculous that we don't even apply science here. The sea splitting can't be explained rationally either, can it?

  3. My son is in kita aleph in Noam Tzvi Banim in Rehovot. Their policy is not to teach miraculous midrashim, at least unless the ethical message is straightforward. I think that the further you move to the right (even in the Religious Zionist world), the more likely you are to find non-rationalism. I also think that you are within your rights to discuss the matter with your child's melamed, and ask why he teaches these sorts of midrashim.

  4. Well, my Shabbat host was quite surprised to read a translation that said that "arov" was flies, and more surprised when I told her that it's a perfectly acceptable alternate translation supported by a number of meforshim.

  5. Okya, now you're taking things a wee bit too seriously, lad.

    The problem with frumkeit today isn't that 6 year olds think that giant octopi and vegetable men attacked Egypt. It's that adults do and think you're a kofer if you don't.

    A 6 year old needs to be excited about the material he is learning. If midrashim help, so be it. The challenge of the educational system is to adjust its approach as the child ages so that eventually he comes to tell the difference between drash and pshat.

  6. Dan: Kids and adults know (at least they should) that Harry Potter, Narnia, Hobbits etc. are not real - they are within the realm of fantasy where anything is possible - and that's the beauty of the fantasy.

    Most of these Midrashim were never intended by CHaZaL to to teach what "really" happened but to use something within the text as a springboard to teach a deeper lesson which can be made relevant to the readers.

    Shouldn't we aim to teach the Midrashim in the manner that CHaZaL intended them rather than as "historical fact" which was not the intention of CHaZaL

  7. Don't worry, while this is a fine line, you will be able to navigate it with success, be"h.

    My kids went to a charedi (not even chardal) school, and they got used to asking me, "Mommy, is this how we hold also?". They learned to respect their teachers and principal even when they (and we) disagree with them. This has been an important life lesson.

  8. Your dilemma (and mine) is one that has been shared by countless others over the generations. We all hear our children coming home with obviously untrue midrashim, but none of us wants to damper their enthusiasm. The problem's been around forever.

    Some say you should nod your head and encourage these fun fantasies, and at an older age, start telling them pshat. Maybe. But this is a problem, because often the kids are out of the house at the age of 14. You dont really have that shabbos table time anymore.

    It's been said that an adoped child should be told about his adoption at a very young age, when it means nothing to him. In this way he growws up with the fact, and it's simply part of him, and nothing he even notices. Whereas if you drop the bombshell on him when he's older, it takes on much more significance. I tend to think the same is true with midrashim. Probably better to tell them at a young age, gently, that "not everyone agrees with that", or "that midrash is just a legend", uchidoimah, rather than waiting till later. There's no one size answer. Either way, as you conlude, you have to pray you are successful.

    1. That's an excellent point. My five year old, who's in a dati leumi gan here said to me on Shabbat with regard to a fantastic Midrash, "yesh mefarshim sheomrim shezeh lo haya amiti ", (there are commentaries who say that wasn't real )

  9. I look at this kind of teaching as a little bit of hedging our bets. I think any sensible mechanech knows that eventually his/her students will be confronted with the truth that there are no vegetable men and that giant octopi did not descend upon Egypt. They teach these myths to create a bias on the part of the kids. The thinking goes that if we inculcate kids with the idea that a G-d who can do anything, just might have, these children will opt to err on the side of belief when it is challenged. The fact is it works. I too had a healthy dose of such midrashim in my MO Ivrit b'Ivrit elementary school. Even in the Skokie yeshiva some of the rabbeim referred to them. Those midrashim, coupled with alot of mussar created some very strong defenses to the challenges of living in a world in which skepticism reigns.

    Additionally, are these midrashim any worse than say the various vertlach that try to explain the Biblical narrative in other than human terms? Take one example; the Joseph and his brothers confrontations, on which some commentators explain that Joseph was thought to be a usurper of the monarchy, which belonged to Yehuda and that's why the shvatim felt the need to kill him etc. Quite honestly, I find those mental gymnastics to be more offensive and silly than an attempt to create some wide eyed wonder for G-d in the mind of a child. As a postscript last year my ten year old also learned the story of the vegetable men and asked me if it's true. Rather than stumble into the quagmire of challenging a rebbe and sabotaging my child's education, I explained to him the notion of "Ein meishivin al hadrash," telling him that the Midrash doesn't need to be "true" to be "correct."

  10. I think that all of these comments have much merit!

  11. "said that "arov" was flies"

    Actually, I believe the Tur says it was hornets/bees.

  12. The biggest shock to me was when parents/teachers/rabbis would tell me that some midrash I learned as a kid wasn't actually in the chumash.

    The fact that the midrashim were not literally true, was as clear as day. It really scares me when I learn of adults or even teenagers, who think these midrashim are historically true.

    To J.A.M who wrote "The sea splitting can't be explained rationally either, can it?"

    See this article from Sept 21 2010. BBC News: Computer model shows sea split

    The idea that you can't undermine a teacher is a really stupid idea, and I'd like to know where this concept came from.

  13. RNS, I probably just missed it, but is the view of the GRA on pages 308-309 of Sacred Monsters (2007) properly sourced?

  14. This drives me crazy, because the Torah is already fantastic without midrashim. When you add hard-to-believe elements that are really just made-up stories (made-up stories told by holy people with holy intentions and holy subtext, but made-up stories all the same) and equate them with the narrative of God interacting with man, it calls the whole thing into question. I don't believe, like Dan, that "there is plenty of time for them to learn the rational approach when they get a bit older." If you let pshat and drash get intertwined when they're little, are you sure you'll be able to extricate the two when they're older? It caused me no end of problems as a teen and contributes to my challenges of faith even as an adult.

    To counteract this, we play a weekly game with our kids, "pshat or drash?" They've gotten pretty good at anticipating the question - even our six year old knows that there is the Torah and there are stories people tell about the Torah.

  15. I once visited a Chareidi friend (he didn't grow up Chareidi, but I don't think it makes a difference) and he encouraged his young son to speak and act politely, like Yaakov, and not rudely, like Esav.

    I mentioned to him that Esav could certainly be read as polite. He said, "Look. My son will never know the difference between pshat and drash. But he'll make kiddush."

  16. Nachum - please share your "Arov" sources. Thanx!

  17. >I once visited a Chareidi friend (he didn't grow up Chareidi, but I don't think it makes a difference) and he encouraged his young son to speak and act politely, like Yaakov, and not rudely, like Esav.

    >I mentioned to him that Esav could certainly be read as polite. He said, "Look. My son will never know the difference between pshat and drash. But he'll make kiddush."

    Or, he'll figure it out and he may grow to think that his Tatty is a credulous fool. Or he'll realize that his Tatty wasn't being very straight with him, and the accompanying problems arising from that.

  18. "Look. My son will never know the difference between pshat and drash. But he'll make kiddush."

    Exactly. Akin to saying, "my son will be ignorant his whole life, but he'll be frum." Also akin to, "My son won't be frum, but he'll be educated." Are such polarities inevitable? No. Are they probable? Yes. Unless "frum" means "orthoprax", and "educated" means "semi-educated."

    This is THE crux of the question.

  19. My "favorite" is the SantaClausation of Eliyahu HaNavi. I remember being told by my first grade Jewish Studies teacher that Eliyahu came to her Seder and the table trembled and the wine in his cup was slightly lower after Shifoch... (I think that family must have sent all their kids to the door while she spooned out some wine.)

    So Eliyahu is Santa, and the wine is the plate of cookies that inexplicably disappears.

    My son is only three and I have not yet had to deal with this as a father, but it's been weighing on my mind for a while already. Do I become a teacher's nightmare? Do I send my son back to school each day with the truth, risking he'll tell the other kids there is no Santa Clause?

    While I can't speak from experience, my gut is telling me those who have commented that it is best to start teaching the rational approach as early as possible are on the right track. And, confronting teachers and schools that teach the drash as if it were pshat is the answer to not contradicting what's being taught, and not biting your tongue. We have seen the results of taking the biting your tongue approach, and that's a whole bunch of adults who never learned the difference as Ameteur pointed out.

  20. I think there is one way I could tolerate the agadata approach to teaching young children: If it was part of an overall curriculum that including starting over again with Beraishit at the 5th or 6th grade with it being taught on a higher level. Let the school plan the deprogramming into the curriculum.

    Of course this would mean devoting more time to chumash in the upper grades if you want to cover most or all of the Torah by the time the child goes onto high school. Something that might be problematic if the schools approach has been to spend the lions share of the Jewish studies on Talmud in those years.

  21. Don't people here wish they could return to innocence? Wasnt life a lot simpler before you ever were exposed to biblical criticism or other challenging concepts? If so, better be careful before exposing kids to doubt about midrashim. Dont assume all your kids are like YOU. Your kids might be from the majority who are never troubled by difficult questions. For such kids, which again are the majorty, I dont know if its worth sowing the seeds of doubt. The distinction between pshat and drash is but the first step.

  22. Gershon Pickles: It's only seeds of doubt today for those of us who went through a Torah education system that gave Midrash the same weight as pshat. If it was presented differently (or as most here would argue, correctly) then if would not be "sowing the seeds of doubt." It's only when we have to contradict what's already been established as "truth" in the child's mind that we risk creating a more skeptical and possibly sometimes cynical approach to traditional teachings. (e.g. There's no need to ever teach a child about the Vegetable-Man. This can be saved for self study later in life as opposed to the other away around.)

  23. "Don't people here wish they could return to innocence? Wasnt life a lot simpler before you ever were exposed to biblical criticism or other challenging concepts?"

    Not at all.

    I once heard a priest on NPR's "Speaking of Faith", say that he would explain a concept in a way, so that even a scientist could understand it.

    Simple education, where values are either true or false, removes, in my mind, all the actual value and wonder of studying Torah with various levels of PRD"S. Complex learning, is where the joy is at. Figuring out how that translates to day to day living is the stuff that pre-teens and teenagers love to grapple with. (You know, like, what if an apple isn't really an apple, but we've just been using the wrong word all these years?? And how do I know that the red I see is the same as the red you see?)

    These are things that teenagers should be dealing with in school, not when they have responsibilities likes a job and a family.

  24. My children are in a charedi school. I just go with the flow, and keep it to myself. I expect things to get better in a few years. If they don't, and my children have not figured it out by age 20, I'll introduce them to some Rishonim.
    My father was a talmid chacham (and a baal habayis), and I used to get upset when I was a preteen and teen at his "disrespecting" Midrashim and Agadda.
    I figured out what he meant much later. Chaval, I never got to discuss it with him.

  25. No offense meant, but this is the most idiotic article I have seen up on your site.

    Kids always are taught things as kids that they learn to disagree with as adults. The moon is made of cheese, the tooth fairy, Santa Claus, the tongue has different taste buds in different areas, etc. etc. etc.

    For the most part, children appreciate drash because its "cool." Then they grow up and learn that sometimes the drash isn't meant to be literal all the time. Is it fun? Absolutely! It's so cool to think that Yehuda was unbelievably strong and when he screamed the city walls trembled.

    I actually think that at this stage, besides for undermining the teacher, which can cause a little disrespect to creep in , undermines the faith in Jewish sources such as medrash and Gemara.(BTW since we use Rashi as the main commentary on Chumash, undermining the vegetable-man may come to undermine Rashi as he quotes it)

    You are walking a fine line and I can see no reason as to why you are so determined to do so.

    PS. When in the realm of 'Miracles' who care how Miraculous the Miracles are? (Actually. this was the reason I started writing but I felt the prior point was much better)

  26. For a moment, ever wonder what is what like to learn Chumash _before_ Rashi's commentary existed? I like to view one of his contributions for Torah scriptural learning as a "collator" of the Talmud/Medrash on any given verse.

    Perhaps a learning stage in elementary school classes should be to look up those passages from the Talmud/Medrash to see all of the views - in doing so, I have come to appreciate Rashi more for doing much of the work already.

  27. Re: Splitting of the Sea

    Can the computer model account for this pasuk.

    וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָלְכוּ בַיַּבָּשָׁה, בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם; וְהַמַּיִם לָהֶם חֹמָה, מִימִינָם וּמִשְּׂמֹאלָם.

    It seems that these various simulations can neatly account for the eastern wind that split the sea, but not this verse that "feels" like midrash, but explicitly describes the water as "walls" and uses a term commonly translated as "dry land".

    What's the derech hatevah understanding?

    Is the exodus the exception to the derech hatevah rule since we are told multiple times in the Torah that G-d took us out with Signs and Wonders?

  28. Yitzi7, I don't have it in front of me. See The Living Torah, or any Mikraot Gedolot.

    ahg, we stared at the cup and were told it was going down as we watched it. I suppose we convinced ourselves it did, or never took it too literally.

    But then, I was a huge fan of "The Midrash Says" growing up, and my brother told me, when I was relatively young, that, no, Og wasn't really that big. I turned out OK.

  29. Abundant sources regarding Arov (which just means "mixture") can be found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah. Make sure to turn the page, they continue!

    In regards to chinuch, oh boy, what a dilemma. I'll daven for your children, you daven for mine. All I have to add is that children are sensitive to subtle attitudes. So if you're cringing while they speak, they'll pick up on it. Once they know you don't agree with what they're being taught, you might have no choice other that explaining your beliefs. Better to build up your own vision that tear down their only framework of reference.

  30. Yasher koach, R' Natan for bringing up a difficult parenting problem which doesn't admit an easy answer. The issue of fantastic midrashim being taught to school children has become more of an issue in this generation than it was when I went to a traditional yeshiva. Kids today know and are taught far more midrashim than I was. In those days, teaching in the earlier grades was about reading and understanding the text - Chumash and Rashi. Whatever wasn't in Rashi was generally not covered. Unfortunately, in my view, kids now are taught all kinds of midrashim. With the more fantastic (in the original sense of fantasy) getting more play time. Even without the input of rebbe'im, there is "The Little Midrash Says" that is popular among kids. I wish that Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky's advice to our local day school was generally adopted, "teach only the midrashim found in Rashi". Heck, that's not even observed in that school.

    What to do? Part of the answer is careful choice of schools so as to minimize conflicts between what is taught in school and at home. If a compatible school is not available, then a parent should, in my view, introduce their own ideas when the child is old enough to understand that there can be differences of opinion in the adult world. Of course, there are good and bad ways of attempting home education. Calling the rebbe or morah an idiot or using body language indicating contempt is a bad way.

    In any case, parents have an obligation to raise and educate their children. Sending them to school doesn't free them from that obligation. Being honest with children is important as is the value of family tradition - even if that tradition starts with you. While we can't expect and shouldn't desire our children to be our intellectual clones, we have a duty to impart whatever we have learned in texts and in life to the next generation.

    In sum, if you feel capable of correcting what your child has learned in school, do it - but be circumspect.

  31. Folks - we live in an age where new scientific discoveries and developments challenge our mesorah-derived beliefs on a regular basis. B"H there are a few deeply educated and motivated individuals in our generation who can tackle these challenges for us (RNS being the closest here). However, there are those whose faith is weak and who fear that any credence given to this "science" is poretz geder to apikorsis. The problem is they teach in our schools and are ill-equipped to teach our children the complexities of "Torah-and..". The antidote is to have the integrity to teach our children to be rational - midrash (and Tanach for that matter) are not history and Rabbis can be wrong. Lets not fail our children and end up with another generation of daas faux-rah.

  32. I love when you write posts like this one; you air b'fnay am va'eda (most of whom you have never met) your personal intimate chinuch shailos, now doesn't that sound discreet and mature?
    Also, as many of the commentors have noted (many of whom are usually staunch supporters of yours, regardless of how "vild" your particular point may be) it is simply nutty that you are driven by your mania to tinker irresponsibly with your own children's chinuch! Get a grip sir please!

  33. May I suggest that the real problem is teachers who actually believe these midrashim literally.

  34. Sam said...
    > it is simply nutty that you are driven by your mania to tinker irresponsibly with your own children's chinuch!

    Chas v’shalom that a parent should tinker with his children’s chinuch! Much better to turn over all responsibility for educating our children to the yeshivos. After all, we all know the rigorous training that the seminary girls teaching our young children go through. Who are we to question their judgement!

    You think you have it bad? At least you share core beliefs with the school. As I see it, either my kids are going to buy what their school is teaching them, in which case they’ll see me as evil (or at best, misguided), or they’ll come to agree with me, in which case they’ll resent my having sent them to be indoctrinated.

  35. I read this post once and thought, "yeah, I too have been frustrated when a fantastic drash is reread into the pesukim as pshat" (remember that animated video about Yaakov keeping the whole torah a while back?). But I think it is worthwhile to differentiate here a bit more.

    Pshat should mean the simple way to read the words of a pasuk so that they make narrative sense. When the pasuk describes baby Moshe as a "Young boy crying" it is fair to point out the discrepancy between baby and boy.

    But when so much of the torah's narrative is outside of normative, scientific fact, I don't see the harm in incorporating more fantastical elements when we teach it. In fact, I would argue that because the torah intentionally goes outside the bounds of scientific fact in its narrative, we too, SHOULD incorporate more supernatural elements where the narrative demands it.

    To say that the Nile turned into blood (not that it merely looked like blood) is supernatural. Why then would I not include a statement from chazal about how a yid and a mitzri could share a cup with half being blood and half water? Is that just too much to believe?

    Are we worried that we are exceeding the bounds of what actually happened in Mitzrayim? I don't think any thinking person is looking at the torah for a 100% factual historical documentation. It is there to teach us, and if it chooses hyperbole for the lesson, what need to we have to curtail it?

  36. Kudos to you Rabbi. The two primary issues you raise,ie. respect for the teacher, and beliefs being taught that are different from your beliefs provoked some interesteing comments.

    You might wish to discuss the problem with the school administration. Who knows, it might alter some methodology.

    I believe that regardless of the age of a child, if the child can accept a more intellectual reason, do instruct your child in that fashion. I say this from personal experience, because in second grade, I ask the question of dinasours disappearing, and was told by my teacher, (a Rabbi), that the disappearance was caused by a trial attempt by HaShem. I reasoned to myself that if HaShem is omnipotent and perfect, why the need for a trial run? Having no one to queery this, in my mind, it furthered my distance from acceptance and lived a life as a cultural Jew. Your writings have brought me back a long way, and so I thank you.

    Permit me to comment on two statements made by others. I believe that Napolean in his Egyptian campaign crossed the Sea of Reeds in very shallow water, and the tongue does taste sweet, salt, sharp, and sour items on different parts of the tongue. different things

  37. At the school my kids go to (Maimonides) the difference between Medrash and Pshat is drummed into their heads by some of their teaches. I can't tell you how many times they start out their shabbos table parsha by emphasizing what they are saying comes from the medrash and is not to be taken literally. I agree with the method but like to tease my kids about it anyway

  38. It seems to me clear that the exodus is not an exception, the “laws of nature” did not change. There were very unusual occurrences, but they were all due to natural forces, it was just that by special Divine Providence they happened at times and in ways that benefited the Jews.

    The verse about the water forming “walls” is no exception. It can be understood mainly as being poetic, using the expression that the water was a “wall” in that the people had nowhere else to go since there was water to their right and left, and they could only go straight ahead. There are other verses like this, for example “I carried you on eagle’s wings (kanfei nesorim) and brought you to Me” (Shmos 19:4), it is a metaphor meaning with protection and speed as the commentaries note.

    The verse in Shmos 15:8 is more explicit, “At a blast from Your nostrils the waters were heaped up, flowing water stood like a mound” – however as describe in the article linked above by “Ameteur,” this could have happened through tsunami-like waves and/or through "wind setdown." One problem I have with the article is that if there are such strong winds clearing the pathway through the sea the wind itself would have made it impossible to walk there at that time.

    Available on the internet are some alternative explanations of how natural processes could have been involved. Since everything is interrelated, to fully understand what happened at the splitting of the sea it is critical to discover the actual route that the Jews took, it’s exact location, as well as the real location of Mount Sinai and other details. I came across and have read much of this and this and associated links.

    These are produced by Bible-believing Xians (so beware of course), but the theory presented seems to be quite rational and make a lot of sense to from a rationalist Torah perspective (though one has to be prepared to challenge some assumptions).

    I’d like to hear feedback from others what they think.

  39. I do not recall any of my kids ever bringing home such ideas. But maybe I simply do not recall....

  40. Well said, Mosheh.

    Most people who sneer at Midrash have never learned it as adults.

    They learn it out of context, and they skip the pesukim the drash is based on. Then they take the shell that's left and run with it

    I have often seen how what looks like a completely irrelevant statement from Chazal, or a real stretch of a Drash, turns out to be based on the purest reading of Peshat. Just elsewhere in Tanach.

  41. I hope your are not insulted but this essay makes me nauseous! (for reasons cited by all of the above)

  42. uh G*3, I don't see how you're situation is relevant at all, you (I say without sarcasm or cynicism) simply don't believe and obviously you have no "eternal" worries about the destinations of your kids. R' Slifkin on the other hand (I am led to believe by his blog) DOES believe and therefore wonders how best to be mechanech his children to serve G-d. I don't know why you would send your kids to a yeshiva at all, just send them to a public school and you'll have no problems of their turning out religious.

  43. I've always thought that not having a Santa Claus or anything like that was one of Judaism's great advantages over other religions.

    Why not teach Chumash according to Onkelos' elucidation?

    And why not teach the approach of Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam which is in the front of every copy of the Ein Yaakov aggadata collection?

  44. cyberdov we all agreed on that already, but it doesn't solve anything.

    I'm 16. I'm into Rationalist Judaism. I disagree with lots of what my Rebbeim at Yeshiva say. I can't appreciate their mussar if I believe it to be based on false pretenses. I don't accept their mussar about Bitul Zman because to them all it means is Bitul Torah, and I disagree with their presumptions about Tachlis Hachayim. I waste lots of time playing video games, even though I agree that it is Bitul Zman. I know that rational self-mussar could/should apply here, but sometimes you just need a little extra inspiration.

  45. "I'm 16. I'm into Rationalist Judaism. I disagree with lots of what my Rebbeim at Yeshiva say. I can't appreciate their mussar if I believe it to be based on false pretenses."

    I believe this is part of the problem.

    I doubt Moshe here has been exposed to literary contructs to know and understand the midrashim, and because of this he assumes that the midrashim, and thus the musar is baseless.

    But the midrashim were written specifically to lead to the musar, and if understood correctly, the assertion that thy are baseless, would itself be baseless. But of course, nobody in the yeshivish world is out there teaching literature to 16 year olds like they should be.

  46. I do think the comment on not messing with your children's chinuch is quite ironic. No matter what you do you are "messing" with their chinuch - even if you do nothing at all. The readership here may come to this question posed by R. Slifkin with a wide range of acceptance of the beliefs they grew up with. I suspect many look back at their own education and wish they received different answers to their own questions. No matter what anyone's own beliefs are or what their educational approach is with their children, I think the most important thing is not to project disrespect or cynicism. Children have a sixth sense about these things and I dont think anyone here wants their kids to grow up to be cynics (being cynical is not the same thing as being skeptical).

  47. So let's see if anyone has an answer for my problem. I'm not even sure how to describe it. Basically, my wife refuses to have anything regarding dinosaurs in the house and insists on the a literal interpretation of Tanach. She refuses to even talk about the subject and said once that while dino's "might" be real, porn is "real" and would I expose my kids to it just because it's real?

    Maybe this touches on the larger issue of can a rationalist approach inspire faith? I've found it difficult personally. How much of Tanach can be not literally true and still be enough for a person to voluntarily want to live an O. lifestyle?

  48. "It seems that these various simulations can neatly account for the eastern wind that split the sea, but not this verse that "feels" like midrash, but explicitly describes the water as "walls" and uses a term commonly translated as "dry land"."

    1. Yes, the models have "walls."

    2. "Yabasha" means "not water," not necessarily "dry."

  49. robert "So let's see if anyone has an answer for my problem. I'm not even sure how to describe it. Basically, my wife refuses to have anything regarding dinosaurs in the house and insists on the a literal interpretation of Tanach. She refuses to even talk about the subject and said once that while dino's "might" be real, porn is "real" and would I expose my kids to it just because it's real?"

    Why does her point of view "win"? This is not what a compromise is. It sounds like you never had a serious conversation about the subject, so she doesn't know your point of view (and perhaps you don't know hers) but I don't see why at the outset you are overruled.

  50. "but I don't see why at the outset you are overruled"

    It's not that I'm "overruled". She just has a very strong emotional reaction to the subject and refuses to even discuss it. As it very obviously disturbs her greatly, I haven't pushed the subject as it's not yet a serious issue yet ( our kids are 4 and 6 ). What I'm not understanding is the strong emotional reaction to the subject as she's not at all charaidi - in fact she fairly liberal and open minded as far as Orthodox people go.

  51. Sam: Why do you have to be so snarky and nasty? You write "You [R.Slifkin] air before am ve-edah your personal intimate hinukh shailos." What sort of nonsense is that? R. Slifkin is raising an ideological issue that many parents who have children in Orthodox day Schools confront. One can agree or disagree with how R. Slifkin handles this issue. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, "personal" or "intimate" about his problem. Your bias is showing.

    Lawrence Kaplan

  52. IIRC, the basis of the humanoid notion is the difficult phrase "Ve-gam et ha-adamah asher hem aleha." Why not explain to your son the textual difficulty, what the peshat explanations are, and how Hazal used this imaginative idea of humanoids to solve homiletically the textual difficulty?

    Lawrence Kaplan

  53. my son came home qouting his rebbi that wild animals came to egypt from all over the world and they brought with them their native climates! i just smiled and nodded...

  54. RNS, I probably also missed your reply to my previous comment...

  55. You're right, it's not properly sourced. My apologies. (No, I don't currently have the source.)

  56. Thank you. I was just wondering. My suggestion would be Kol Eliyhu seif 51:

  57. Sam, I also found that line of your comment the most tasteless I've encountered in a while. You shoot yourself and members of your party in the leg when posting these things.

    Either I should suggest you tone down if you want to be effective, or I should say nothing and let you harm your cause.

  58. Personally, I think midrash should not be taught until the child is old enough to be able to distinguish between pshat and drash. And at that point, the teacher should start off teaching the difference, and later on, point out when a story is drash, and teach the deeper understanding behind it, to the extent the child is capable of understanding that explanation.

    But I'm not a teacher, nor do I have children in yeshiva, so maybe I'm not qualified to voice an opinion here.

    I think any Torah class that discusses midrash in any way (especially when presented to young children or adults without a solid Torah education) must begin by explaining what midrash is. I would probably start with something similar to the introduction to The Midrash Says. In there, it says that midrashim were written by our sages in order to teach the moral lessons of the Oral Torah. Some are historical accounts of actual events, while some are allegorical, and some have elements of both. Rambam (if I remember correctly) wrote that anyone who believes them all to be history is a fool and anyone who believes them all to be allegory is a heretic. Which is why it is of critical importance to always study midrash with a rabbi who knows the tradition of which is which, and what the embedded lesson is.

    Rabbi Slifkin: If you think your children are old enough to understand these concepts (and based on your description, I think they are), this may be a good approach. You don't (and shouldn't) say that their teachers are wrong, but you can provide the missing context and teach any embedded lessons that the teacher may have omitted.

  59. The problem is that drash is the method that all of Judaism as we know it is based on. The talmud uses drash not pshat as the method for deriving halachic practices.

    In fact, it can be argued that until around the time of Rashi, the only way of approaching/interpreting the torah was by means of drash. And it's not for nought that Rabbi's like to give "drashas" and not "pshatas" from the pulpit.

    And as has been mentioned above a few times, there are many miraculous events described in the torah. So when I hear that Moshe's staff turned into a snake and devoured the other snakes, and then Rashi says that it was even more miraculous that the devouring happened AFTER the snake had turned back to a stick - is that just too much to handle? Sure sticks don't eat other sticks (drash). But sticks also don't turn into snakes (text)...

    So although I'm also inclined to be rational when it comes to midrashim and believe that Rashi brought many of them to teach an important moral lesson (think of hachnasat orchim and God appearing to Abraham), there is no way to entirely discount midrashim.

    Because if we do so, I think we also pretty much undermine Jewish learning since its inception...

  60. @Menachem:
    Of course, halachah is derived through midrash, and according to definite rules (see Baraita d'Rabbi Yishmael). There is a difference, though, between Midrash Halachah and Midrash Aggadah. Aggadah is an important part of our tradition, to be sure. However, I scarcely think that it's apikorsut to state that the story of Avram smashing the idol's in his father's store is nowhere in the Torah Sh'bichtav. There is p'shat, Midrash Halachah and Midrash Aggadah. IMHO, the proper thing to do is to teach each as it is, according to the capacity of the student.

  61. I admire your reserve becasue when my kids come home from school with nonsense or tales from a*sehole rebbes and teachers I don't mince my words. When it is however fairy tale style misdrashim I reason with them to seperate the text from the drash. This helps them understand that that is not what the posuk says or means and is a midrash, no less but also no more.


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