Thursday, September 23rd | 17 Tishri 5782

March 30, 2016 7:20 am

On Ambiguity

avatar by Harry Zeitlin

David and Goliath. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

David and Goliath. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Too many people fear ambiguity. We love Purim with its clear-cut heroes — Esther and Mordechai — and villain Haman. There’s no question that Pharaoh, who self-hardens his own heart, personifies evil, while Moshe and Aharon, of course, remain our role-models. David, especially in his youth, is the heroic warrior who slew the giant Goliath.

Deeper study, however, rescues us from such oversimplification, albeit at the expense of emotional certainty. Although we finally reassure ourselves, the Gemara (Sanhedrin 74b, Megilla various pages) worries about Esther’s honor and her observance of niddah, family/sexual purity, while a member of the harem. David reveals a pretty diabolical side to his personality in his pursuit of Betsheva, Moshe doesn’t alway maintain emotional balance and Aharon forged the golden calf!

To further complicate matters, just a little more digging and we learn (Yalkut Shimoni Sh’mot 176) that Pharaoh perhaps made last-minute tshuva just before drowning, resurfacing as the repentant King of Nineveh (who listens to Jonah’s warning). Then, it becomes hard to maintain Haman’s status as totally evil, without a single redeeming trait when the Gemara (Gittin 57b, Sanhedrin 96b) informs us that one of Haman’s descendants learned Torah in Bnei Brak while another argues, based on Megilla 15a, that Haman, himself, was a Jew! Things are a little more complex than a comfortable black-and-white.

Until fairly modern times, it was axiomatic for us that the Oral Tradition, Torah She’Ba’al Peh, was exactly equal to the Written Torah in terms of authority and authenticity, both given to Moshe at Sinai. While the main difference between Judaism and the nascent Christianity was their rejection of Oral Torah, i.e. the tradition of their hated foes, the  Pharisees (Parushim = those who explain), we have always fully relied on these explanations to inform us how to perform the mitzvot mentioned (often only in broad hints) in the Written Torah. Relying literally on “scripture,” how would have ever known how to make tefillin, mentioned only as “signs” on our hands and “reminders” or “totefot” between our eyes? Without the explanations of our Oral Tradition, we would have been mired in a primitive system of savage “justice,” amputating hands and putting out eyes. It was always obvious to us that without the enlightenment of the Torah She’Ba’al Peh the Torah is an unlivable document.

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Even the Torah She’Ba’al Peh, however, as a living and evolving tradition, was never meant to be frozen and understood literally on the basis of old printed words. It’s well-established, even admitted (Chulin 90b), that Chazal spoke in lashon havai or guzma, hyperbole, as does the Written Torah. Although not a free-for-all, both Talmud, and Halacha, were always taught/revealed/evolved as proposed solutions for specific times and places to the continuing challenge (and perhaps this is the only constant) of ever increasing our closeness (devekut) to The Creator, utilizing the path He gives us — fulfilling mitzvot. In other words, while the mitzvah itself doesn’t change, our method to fulfill it always needs to be effective throughout time. The last thing we want to do is to take every word of Torah She’Ba’al Peh literally. Just as real-life situations in which we find ourselves are filled with ambiguity, so must be our instructions to successfully navigate them in line with halacha.

Over time, halacha has always evolved. If that weren’t the case, I’d probably own less than one-tenth of the books currently in my library; they would never have been written. We’d still be paralyzed, if we survived at all, with our inability to offer animal sacrifices in the ruins of the Beit HaMikdash. The Talmud, rather than the living tradition it has been for two millennia, would merely be of historical interest to a small number of academics rather than the dynamic core that both teaches and inspires to this day.

Of course, it’s vital to “get it right” as best each generation can. That produces a realistic hesitancy and deliberateness to precipitous change — we have too much to lose, entire paths towards The Creator, if we take the wrong steps. But it’s just as vital that we don’t lose our effective approaches because of inattentively ignoring today’s reality. Pretending that it’s still 1816 Krakow is no more conducive to reaching our goals than is seeing ourselves as merely one of many 21st century vendors of competing cultures or spiritual trips, with an eye only to our “sales numbers.” Both stultifying fundamentalist literalism and deconstructionist personal narrative theory have no value beyond, perhaps, presenting us parallel alternatives to reject.

We’re too wise, creative and, at the core, dedicated to an Infinite God, too close to fulfilling our goals to turn, at this late date, into ignorant literalists.

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