Monday, January 9, 2012

Toy Store Theology

In yet another one of those “Only in Israel” moments that many of us have come to know and love: Only in Israel are theological/philosophical debates commonplace in pretty much any setting.

Yesterday afternoon I brought my 7-year old (and yes, it blows my mind that my younger daughter is already 7!) to a friend’s birthday party and we first stopped at a local toy store to buy a gift.

Limor often enjoys discussing the things she learns in school, and asking questions about the Torah and the stories and personalities throughout the Great Book. On our way to the store we were talking about the story in Numbers chapter 20 in which Moses was instructed by God to speak to the rock that would provide water for the thirsty Israelite nation. Out of his frustration with his ever-complaining flock, rather than speaking to the rock as God commanded him to do, Moses struck the rock with his staff.

The Lord’s response to this can be seen as fairly harsh by modern-day standards – God tells him that “because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land which I have given you” (verse 12).

As we walked into the toy store I was telling Limor that while Moses is seen in Judaism as the greatest of prophets and the consummate national leader, even he could make a mistake.

For me, this is one of the most beautiful aspects of Jewish thought, and one of the most significant. I remember reading in one of the Bible commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a major German Bible scholar and Jewish thinker of the 19th century (sorry – I cannot cite specifically where I read this) that the Torah never hides the faults and weaknesses of our great men. Weaknesses make them stronger, faults make them greater, and their struggles make them human. The general idea is that if we are to emulate the great leaders and early patriarchs of the Jewish people – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, King David and so on, it is essential that we see them as real people, with strengths, weaknesses, and the capacity for error. Otherwise, how can we possibly hope to set their lives as examples by which we can live our own lives? It is important to note that Rabbi Hirsch was not by any stretch the first great rabbinical scholar to offer this view.

Of course, there is another school of thought – also found both in traditional Judaism philosophy as well as in modern society, which is that our patriarchs and other biblical-era leaders were above reproach – anything and everything that they ever did was the right thing to do, and if we are not able to see or understand the underlying reasons for some of their actions, it is probably because we have not been blessed with a deeper God-directed understanding.

Far be it from me to say that this approach is “wrong” – some of the greatest Bible scholars and Jewish thinkers have held to this belief. It is found in late Second Temple period literature, as well as in the period of Rabbinic Judaism in the Mishna and the Gemara; it is also found throughout medieval times and to this very day. It is a very reasonable and respectable way to read and understand the Torah, simple one with which I personally do not agree.

But it can make for some interesting dialogues, which brings us back to my entering a toy store with Limor yesterday afternoon.

I happened to utter the phrase “Moses’ mistake” as we walked into the store, and the shop owner, a very friendly, very religiously-observant and very learned man who obviously follows the “other” school of thought, immediately looked at me and said (in a non-threatening manner) “God Forbid that Moses ever made a mistake!”.

What followed was a very pleasant 10-minute conversation, during which time Limor and I picked a gift and paid for it, all while the shop owner and I discussed theology. It probably goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that while he and I did not agree on a single point throughout the conversation, it was a lot of fun. At one point, I mentioned that the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman – Nahmanides – a 13th century Spanish biblical commentator) held that all of the heroes of the Bible made mistakes, my friend’s response was that “For the Ramban to say that took a great deal of courage. A simple Jew like me could never say such a thing…” And so it went…

I have often encountered and debated this particular question regarding the fallibility of the Biblical heroes, usually in a less congenial atmosphere (granted, I was a customer, so the guy did have to be careful about screaming “Heretic!” at me), and I can understand and appreciate the underlying logic of that approach to Bible study. But I don’t quite get the need for clinging to the infallibility of the patriarchs et al.

I mean, of course I get the need to have role models to whom we look up, and whom we strive to emulate. I share that need. But why is it so critical to see those role models as “super-human”? If they were “mere” mortals such as ourselves with their strengths, weaknesses, good days and bad ones, would that diminish who they truly were and what they accomplished? I certainly hope not!

An example – for me, one of the most inspiring stories in the Bible is that of Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38). In a nutshell, Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son, but he was an evil one (the Torah doesn’t tell us what exactly he did that was so terrible), so God slew him. Then, Tamar was given to Judah’s second son for a Levirate marriage, but he too was evil and he too got “slewed”. Eventually in order to see the Levirate marriage fulfilled, Tamar was forced to trick Judah into sleeping with her, and when he did she became pregnant. Upon hearing that his daughter-in-law was pregnant, Judah’s automatic reaction was that she was to be executed. When Tamar informed him that he was the father, Judah immediately acknowledged that Tamar was right and he was in the wrong for how he had mistreated her.

Tamar has long been one of my favorite biblical characters – she had teh courage and strength to do the right thing even when the odds were stacked against her. But Judah is also a real superstar in my eyes. He did something wrong – but was able to accept responsibility, to recognize his mistake, and to make things right. Isn’t that the kind of person I should strive to be? If I perceive someone as being without flaws, I could never imagine trying to be like them. I know I would never be good enough!

I may be way off base here, and usually I try not to “get into the minds” of people when I don’t agree with them and when I have trouble relating to their point of view, but I’m going to go out on a limb here.

It seems to me that for many people, the idea that our heroes and leaders can do no wrong is a source of comfort. Knowing that God is always with the most righteous, and that all of the person’s acts are guided by a force more powerful and far-seeing than any of us can really understand provides the security that the world is governed by righteousness, and that God is actively guiding all that we do.

If that is in fact what drives people to seek perfection in their role models I can understand it, but not agree with it.

Like most parents, I try to set a role model for my kids – with varying degrees of success from day to day. But I know that if perfection was one of the measuring sticks that I was to set for my girls, then not only would they never be able to reach that, but they would give up trying very quickly, and possibly even go through life feeling like failures because they were unable to attain such unreasonable heights.

Fortunately for all of us, they will never see me as perfect, and they often see me recognizing my shortcomings and apologizing for my mistakes. And besides the role models whom I have had in my life – my parents, some of my teachers, certain friends, etc., I can also point to the “stars” of the Bible stories for setting the standard for me as well – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel all had their problems and all made their mistakes. So did Judah, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, David, Solomon and a host of other personalities from the Bible. Yet even with the mistakes that these people all made – or perhaps because of them, these were the very personalities that established and shaped the Jewish people and serve as the basis of the entire Judeo-Christian belief system.

I’m happy to aim for their standard of behavior – for myself and for my kids. Although I do hope that the gift we picked yesterday was one that the birthday boy likes...


  1. Nice post, Asher. I'm reminded of what a Muslim friend once said when I bemoaned making a mistake in a piece of needlework, and had to tear it out and start over. She said that in her culture, if a person makes a mistake in a piece of craft-work, he'll leave it. It's a reminder that only G-d is perfect, we humans are not. When we acknowledge our own frailties and weaknesses, I see that as an indication of great strength. When we can acknowledge and apologize for our shortcomings, that is a sign of maturity. And those qualities are the ones you're trying to emulate from our biblical ancestors as well as from people closer to our own time. Such people are role models, just as you are a role model for your own children. May they learn from you and grow strong and wise.

  2. Asher, this is a very enjoyable piece to read in a sensitive, thought-provoking way. I appreciate your determination to work fallacy into the educational model, and I think it is it's own kind of ideal. I believe both you and the children you are raising will get far with you putting this model to work with such integrity.
    While I believe you and the salesman definitely have different paradigms, I think the difference between the two is more subtle, as evidenced in his comment,“For the Ramban to say that took a great deal of courage. A simple Jew like me could never say such a thing…” It sounds like his opinion is very far from calling you a heretic, but more along the lines of not wanting to judge someone who was far more righteous than he believes himself to be.
    Both paradigms counteract the natural psycholgical phenonemenon of attributing one's own mistakes to external factors (I couldn't help it) and attributing other people's mistakes to internal factors (that's what kind of person he is).
    I have a feeling that the two don't necessarily have to be at odds with each other, but could even supplement each other. Perhaps your paradigm for onesself, and the other paradigm for the other, not just for Tzaddikim, but all others, could bring us towards achieving the national goal of judging the other favorably.
    I have noticed that the trait you hold highest in esteem (I think) is humility. You are a model of this trait and of striving towards achieving more of it.
    "כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם" "A righteous person falls seven [many] times and will nevertheless get up [and try again]."
    Perhaps we need to become a nation (and a collection of individuals)that is humble enough to continually recognize and correct our own mistakes, and yet sees the righteous of others, despite their mistakes, a nation that sees that mistakes are not the opposite of righteousness, but the path to it.

  3. I want to emphasize that I think both you and the salesman deserve a lot of credit for sharing differing opinions with each other with such respect. And all thanks to Limor! (And the birthday boy :-)

  4. Just a technical point - it's possible for both opinions to be given weight. In the Talmud it sates (about Reuven sinning with Yaakov's concubine) "Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: Anyone who says that Reuven sinned, is mistaken". Of course the gemara goes on and gives half a dozen examples of rabbis who precisely think that Reuven *did* sin. Similar arguments pertain to David and BatSheva and Yehuda and Tamar.
    It's perfectly reasonable to suggest that they sinned (after all, the text says outright that they sinned) but that the sin they did is not exactly what you think it is. If it were you or me and we acted that way we would assume it was innocuous (maybe even virtuous) but for their refined level it was terrible.
    I'm a big fan of Rav Hirsch and to me it seems clear that saying our role models sinned is a good first approximation for children, so they can learn the idea of admitting mistakes and moving on. Deeper interpretations of less obvious levels of sin are (in my opinion) something to be learned later when one has a more refined appreciation for the subject matter. The sad thing is that many people get stuck understanding bible stories at the 5 year old level and never revisit them (except to say "what a stupid story")

  5. Remember the whole biblical drama begins with an act of transgression; a necessary transgression, I think. I know we pretend to be disappointed that Adam and Eve ate the apple, but we have to know that is the whole point! They had to eat the apple. There is no story without it. That is how the conflict is set up. That is how we break through to consciousness. We don’t come to G-d by doing it “right.” Doing it right just makes us fall in love with ourselves (and by proxy our “perfect” heroes), not G-d.

    In the Christian tradition, Jesus tells the very Jewish story of the Prodigal Son (the erring son who returns home to his father who “kills the fatted calf” in celebration of his return). There is one son who does it right and one son who does it wrong. The one that does it wrong ends up, in fact, right; and the one who does it right ends up dead wrong (Luke 15:11-32).

    We can’t see this because the ego does not want to see it. It gives us no sense of the superiority and ego control we are seeking—instead of seeking G-d and divine union.

    Coming back to you, your story, your relationship with your daughter and the shopkeeper – together with advice for the State of Israel, I love this quote from Hillel (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a) "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; now go and study."