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Sliding, Speaking, Sentient Stones
The new Fundamental of Faith
A few weeks ago I reported on a book ban against Peshuto Shel Mikra, a very popular five-volume work which offers, alongside Rashi, traditional interpretations which are close to the plain meaning of Scripture. Rather than fizzle out, this has blown up into an enormous controversy. There are endless letters and pamphlets being produced both in favor of the work and against it. There are also numerous letters being issued regarding the signatories to the original ban, some claiming that they regret signing and others insisting that they stand by their signatures.
I haven’t been able to wade through all of the material, but one thing in particular caught my eye. Rav Aharon Feldman, following his original signature to the order that one must get the book out of the house, wrote a letter on Kislev 21 in which he claims that he never signed that one must get the book out of one’s house, just that it should not be studied (which he subsequently retracted on 10 Teves, insisting that actually one really must get the book out of the house).
Anyway, in this letter, he details his two objections to the books. First is that they dethrone Rashi as being the sole legitimate peshat. Second is that they cause the reader to lose appreciation for the sanctity of the forefathers and the sheer wickedness of the bad characters in the Torah, which one gets from Rashi. To illustrate this, he points out that Peshuto Shel Mikra presents alternative explanations to two famous explanations of Rashi: One about Eisav being wicked from the womb, and another with an account of the stones upon which Yaakov rested having an argument about which one of them should be under his head (Bereishit 28:11, based on a derasha in Chullin 91b).
It’s astonishing. Here is a brilliant and distinguished Torah scholar, with an American high school education, on the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, insisting that it is absolutely crucial to Judaism to teach that there were sentient stones arguing and jostling about which one should move to the desired position. (He does not specify whether stones in general are sentient and can communicate and move, or if these stones were brought to life by Hashem specially to have this argument.)
Does Rav Feldman himself really believe this? It’s possible; I remember myself how in those circles, it’s perfectly normative to believe that the world was completely supernatural in the days of the Torah. Or he may believe that he believes it, even if he doesn’t actually believe it; such was the impression that I received of him 18 years ago when I asked him if he really believes that mice are generated from dirt.
Another possibility is that he doesn’t actually believe in sentient talking and moving stones, but he believes that it is crucial from an educational perspective for people to be taught this. This would stem from his stated need to teach that the Avot are super-special, and/or from a concern that if people try to avoid supernatural explanations, they’ll end up like Spinoza, or worse - like Slifkin. (I’m worse than Spinoza, because Spinoza denied the authority of God and Torah, whereas I deny the authority of Gedolim and Daas Torah.)
While such an approach is more understandable, it is still deeply problematic. First of all, there are plenty of Rishonim, including not just rationalists, but even Tosafos, who say that the peshat does not refer to sentient rocks; why is it crucial to only teach the supernatural view? Second, insisting that people have to accept extraordinary and bizarre miracles in order to be good Jews is going to drive many people away from Judaism.
Eighteen years ago, when the charedi Gedolim took their first stand against rational thought, hundreds and possibly thousands of people left the charedi world as a result (which, as I now see it, was a very good thing). I wonder what the effects of this latest campaign will be.
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