UNDERSTANDING THROUGH DEED
Recently, Rabbi Richard Wolpoe, Nishma’s blogmaster, posted an entry that discussed different approaches, in the commentators, to karbanot, sacrifices.1 In a certain way, his goal was not simply to present variant opinions but to also present a method of thought by which we could understand the dynamics of this variance. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis: the individual viewpoints combine into a dialectic that presents understanding, not from the simple choosing of one viewpoint over another but from a recognition that it is through the movement and challenge of ideas that we can truly appreciate the full value of karbanot. This concept can be extended to the entire Torah. The famous phrase eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chayim, “these and those are both the words of the living God,”2 is powerfully on point. This maxim may have more significance than solely, albeit importantly, promoting tolerance towards even the most divergent and opposing views within Torah, as long as they are the result of proper Torah analysis. It may be, furthermore, informing us that the ultimate understanding of Torah thought emerges in embracing the dynamic inherent in the interaction and clash of these conflicting perspectives. In applying Rabbi Wolpoe’s concept, it may be that the supreme method by which to understand karbanot is by recognizing and internalizing this divergence, even this contradictory divergence. Our understanding of karbanot must include the value in the opinions that find difficulty with the sacrifices as well as those that find the most sublime value in them. The debate and discussion surrounding the theory of karbanot ultimately stands for this complex and contradictory mix. This realm of complex and contradictory mix may be, in fact, the inherent home of Torah thought.
. A call for action, though, demands of us to take a stand, a specific stand. For example, in a kashrut issue, we cannot answer in psak, in the determination of a halachic action to be implemented, based upon the differing viewpoints on the subject, that there is a 43% value of kosher and a 57% value of non-kosher in an item. We must attain a concrete, black-and-white answer – does one eat it or not? The realm of thought allows for greater freedom; it is at home in the realm of the complex and contradictory. The realm of action, though, involves simplicity for an action is always straightforward and direct. One can contemplate the genius of the hand and the many actions that can be undertaken with it, yet one cannot clap and play the piano at the same time. One wishing to excel at playing piano, furthermore, must focus on the hand as it effects the playing of piano. Action almost demands a simplicity in thought to sustain the desired action. As much as Torah thought may inhabit the realm of complexity and contradiction, the focus on action within Torah, invariably, would seem to draw one to the realm of simplicity, of the focused idea. Torah thought demands breadth; Torah action would seem to demand specific focus.
It is no wonder that the principle of eilu v’eilu is, thus, so difficult for many within the Torah world to grasp. Their lives are devoted to the fulfillment and promotion of the fulfillment of God’s Will through the observance of His commandments, detailed in action as they understand them. Such a devotion, almost necessarily, leads one to a simplistic perception of reasons, values and repercussions that declares and promotes the one perspective that would support this end, this particular action. The true complex and contradictory realm of Torah thought actually seems to challenge it – and, indeed, eilu v’eilu advocates for the acceptance of divergent actions. The result, for each group advocating a specific action, is the possibility that their thought constructs, their Torah thought constructs, will be narrowed to sustain the desired action. This conflict is especially real in the realm of education. To teach and promote a specific halachic action as the fulfillment of the Divine Will is enhanced when divergence is not presented, especially as an option. To fully teach and impart the fullness of Torah thought, though, demands the presentation of the full spectrum of ideas, even as direction regarding action becomes muddy. Yet, the Torah demands both – concreteness in action and breadth in thought. It is not surprising that achievement in Torah intellectual ability was marked by finding 150 ways to declare a sheretz, an insect, tahor, ritually clean3 – even though by halachic definition it is inherently tamei, ritually unclean.
Focus on thought leads to less definiteness in action. Focus on action leads to less breadth in thought. The Torah, almost paradoxically, demands both, definite precision in action and breadth in thought. The answer to how this is possible may, though, actually emerge from a concept that would seem on the surface to only complicate the issue. The Torah focus on action, as would seem to be supported by the famous statement of na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and then we attempt understanding, would seem to place action above thought, implying that if both breadth in thought and definiteness in action are not possible, one should chose the former over the latter. It is, though, the focus on action that actually allows for both to co-exist. Narrowness in thought emerges from a focus on action when observance of the action is presented as predicated on a specific thought. The ta’am, explanation, of a mitzvah is presented as the reason for its performance. Commitment to na’aseh before nishma includes commitment to action prior to even an explanation for the action that would motivate one to perform the action. It is not surprising that there are actually often action exceptions within the framework of a mitzvah that defy the general ta’am presented for the mitzvah yet must still be observed. The action itself deemed as the priority, thereby, actually points to the reality of the spectrum of Torah thought
Deed itself is actually the basis of understanding within Torah. In the world of halachic action there is often inherent contradiction whereby an action demanded in one circumstance supports a certain value yet, within the framework of this very mitzvah, an action demanded in a different circumstance supports an opposing value. This idea is, perhaps, most highlighted in the Four Questions of the Pesach Seder. Within the context of the same general mitzvah concept, we are performing actions that represent diametrically opposite values. The answer is found in the dynamic that attempts to find the synthesis that explains this. Is this not what Rabbi Wolpoe was also advocating in the study of karbanot? Is this not the full intention of all Jewish thought?
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 See Parshah: Leviticus, Sacrifices and Dialectic on the Nishmablog at http://nishmablog.blogspot.com/2009/03/parshah-leviticus-sacrifices-and_29.html. As Rabbi Wolpoe mentions, an overview of these variant opinions can be found in Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, Parshat Vayikra.
2 T.B. Eruvin 13a. This statement can also be translated and “these and those are both the living words of God.”
3 T.B.. Eruvin 13
4 Shemot 24:25.
(c) Nishma, 2009
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