Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Thank God for the Modern Orthodox World


Looking back now in my post-BT days to my pre-BT days, many years ago, it seems that I had two major questions on Orthodoxy that I had assembled during my nine years of Solomon Schechter elementary education. They had nothing to do with biblical criticism, which I had been taught with my aleph beis (actually, aleph bet), because I had never bought into the whole enterprise. The questions were on the authenticity of the Oral Torah, and they were killer questions:

1. How could the Mishnah and the Gemara, the record of the Oral Torah, be directly from God at Sinai when they contain sayings from rabbis in the Second Temple era? Clearly, they were written much later than the revelation at Sinai.

2. If the rabbis knew everything, why didn't they build cars and spaceships or develop cures to cancer, polio, the common cold, etc.? You'd think a refrigerator would have come in handy during Roman times, no?

It wasn't until tenth grade that an important convergance occurred -- a teacher was willing to discuss these issues in open class (I wasn't the type to speak privately with a teacher during non-class time) and I was willing to listen. This teacher -- a female Humash teacher who excelled at going off on tangents (she once helped us study for a chemistry test) -- had a very good answer to my questions: I was absolutely right and Orthodox Jews do not disagree.

The Mishnah and the Gemara contain concepts given at Sinai and transmitted, with plenty of debate, throughout the ages until they were written down in the form of the Talmud. But the actual text of the Talmud -- that was certainly not given at Sinai for the very reason I gave, as well as others. I later learned that the history of the Mishnah is a subject much debated among historians with respected Orthodox figures (e.g. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann and R. Yitzhak Isaac Halevy) taking full part in this discussion. It is a standard belief that the text of the Mishnah and the Gemara were first composed in the time of the Second Temple and later.

Of course the rabbis did not know everything about science. They did not build airplanes because they had no idea that one could or how to go about doing it. Can anyone imagine a trusted sage who knows how to cure cancer but refuses to reveal it? Or knows any of thousands of ways to improve the situation of humanity but holds it to himself?

Now, in my post-BT phase, I realize that the world is not so simple. I have been told -- but have not investigated this at all -- that the Lubavitcher Rebbe's view is that the text of the Talmud was given at Sinai. But it contains sayings with the names of Sages from thousands of years later? Not a problem. God knows the future!

And now, R. Shlomo Miller of Toronto, in a letter (link, PDF) condemning R. Nosson Slifkin of heresy, states (or implies, I'm not sure) that the Sages of the Talmud did, in fact, know modern science. They even knew about quantum physics! If this is to be taken entirely seriously and to its fullest conclusion, one would presumably conclude that the Sages of the Talmud had some sort of a grand unification theory, the tradition of which we have lost through the ages. It must be assumed that the rabbis who opposed Copernicus' heliocentric model of the solar system were lacking the correct tradition on this matter. Perhaps, I could speculate, we also had traditions about evolution and the age of the universe that were lost.

Had I been exposed to these ideas in tenth grade, I would not be taking La Briute self-heating kosher meals with me to business meetings in posh restaurants where everyone else is eating the finest foods.* I would not have children in yeshivah and Bais Yaakov. And I would not be teaching Torah on this blog or otherwise. I thank God for the Modern Orthodox world.

* Ask your rabbi whether this is permitted before doing so. I spoke with R. Hershel Schachter about this at R. Avi Sarfaty's son's pidyon ha-ben, two great rabbis from whom I would never have learned were it not for that tenth grade teacher who, evidently, taught me heresy.

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