Another Reformation of Judaism
To the Editor,
Five Towns Jewish Times
Rabbi Yair Hoffman claims that there is a popular YouTube video that "makes light of the Gemorah in Yuma 28b" that the Avos fulfilled the entire Torah. In fact, the video was not addressing the Gemara, but rather one particular maximalist interpretation of the Gemara, which is that the Avos actually kept all the mitzvos as given on Sinai, such as writing a Sefer Torah. It was not mocking the minimalist interpretation, which explains the Gemara to mean that the Avos were outstanding people, in a way that today would be expressed by keeping the entire Torah. And while I cannot condone disrespect toward any Torah authority, it seems to me that Rabbi Hoffman's disrespect to Torah authorities is far more egregious.
Rabbi Hoffman himself acknowledges that various versions of the minimalist interpretation are proposed by Radak, Ramban, Ramah, Tosafos, Seforno, Chezkuni, Ibn Ezra, and R. Yosef Karo. To this list can be added Rambam (in Hilchos Melachim 9:1 and in his letter to R. Chasdai HaLevi) as well as Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and Meiri (in his introduction to Pirkei Avos). Such a view was undoubtedly normative amongst the rationalist Rishonim of Sepharad, and it even had adherents beyond those circles. It is only Rashi and various Acharonim that Rabbi Hoffman reports as subscribing to the maximalist view (although the literalist rishon R. Moshe Taku could certainly also be added to the list). Rabbi Hoffman writes that "no less an authority than the Maharsha" interpreted the Gemara literally, but this is hardly surprising, as Maharsha was consistently a literalist, even with the fantastic stories in Bava Basra about Rabbah bar bar Chanah - which I presume Rabbi Hoffman would not interpret literally.
Astonishingly, despite the illustrious list of prominent Rishonim presenting the minimalist view, Rabbi Hoffman claims that "the overwhelming majority of Torah authorities, however, clearly and completely hold of the maximalist position, and this is the general position that should be taught in our Torah institutions." How on earth can he simply dismiss the views of so many prominent Rishonim as not even worthy of being taught in Torah institutions, and only suitable for an outreach context? This is an astonishing show of disrespect towards these Rishonim, coming not from some anonymous blogger on the internet, but from a prominent rabbi in a serious publication! Ironically, it is precisely this kind of delegitimization of the rationalist approach which leads to people reacting with anger and mockery.
Rabbi Hoffman claims that "an analysis of the video reveals that the agenda of the Youtube video producer was to push some of the left-of-center aspects of the Yeshiva University Hashkafa and to undermine the lessons taught in the more Yeshivish circles." I would say that an analysis of Rabbi Hoffman's article reveals that his agenda is to push the non-rationalist approach of certain Ashkenazi Rishonim and various Acharonim, and to undermine - indeed, to write out of history! - the more rationalist approach of many prominent Rishonim that is taught in centrist circles. Rabbi Hoffman's essay is a model of how the mesorah gets rewritten, and it is an appalling demonstration of disrespect towards those Rishonim.
Rabbi Natan Slifkin
Ramat Bet Shemesh
(Note to my readers: Observe the similarities to the situation with the views of the Rishonim regarding Shiluach HaKein and Chazal's knowledge of science!