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Wednesday, January 04, 2012

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Parshas Vayechi

Fitzgerald once said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  He may have been a dissipated lush, but, from personal experience, that doesn't mean he couldn't occasionally say a good thing.

Dealing with contradiction is a hallmark of sophistication, and I do not mean that word to reflect its etymological sense of sophistry.  The examined life inevitably exposes us to the innumerable inconsistencies of reality, and, I believe, intelligently embracing these contradictions engenders mental flexibility and perspective.  Light is a particle and not a wave; light is a wave and not a particle.  Time is immutable; time is relative and specific to every particular place.  Hashem knows what we will choose: Hashem's knowledge does not mandate that we make any particular choice.  Hashem determines whether we have what to eat and wear; we are obligated to do hishtadlus.  The universe was created from nothing five thousand seven hundred and seventy two years ago; the universe is 14 billion years old, and the Earth is four and a half billion years old.  The mabul wiped out all living creatures; no archaeological record of any such world-wide deluge exists, and the Chinese have uninterrupted bureaucratic records going back to before, during, and after the date of the mabul.  Hashem loves Klal Yisrael, His chosen People, and will redeem them, and Hashem rewards good deeds and punishes wickedness; the history of the Jews and the fate of Rav Akiva (כל דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד) and Nachum ish Gamzu (גם זו לטובה) would make Dr. Pangloss run out and swallow poison.  שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא; but you can be sure that עונש עבירה בהאי עלמא איכא.  (see Rashi Shemos 6:9)

Yaakov Avinu did not die; Yaakov Avinu was embalmed, mummified, and buried.

That Gemara in Taanis (5b) is the classic illustration of this idea; it has been used for that purpose by many thinkers- believers and apostates and various combinations thereof.
הכי א"ר יוחנן יעקב אבינו לא מת א"ל וכי בכדי ספדו ספדנייא וחנטו חנטייא וקברו קברייא א"ל מקרא אני דורש שנאמר (ירמיהו ל) ואתה אל תירא עבדי יעקב נאם ה' ואל תחת ישראל כי הנני מושיעך מרחוק ואת זרעך מארץ שבים מקיש הוא לזרעו מה זרעו בחיים אף הוא בחיים
I think the lesson of this Gemara is that all such contradictions are only apparent.  Every such enigma has an explanation that will resolve the contradiction.  A humble man of faith will accept his inability to understand, and the question will not bother him, other than to stimulate thought and a sense of awe at the complexity of Hashem's bri'ah.  

I recently talked to a young man that is attending Harvard Law.  He said that every good law school has mostly Jewish professors.  Harvard has to have a higher quality of professor, so they have not only Jewish professors, but Jewish professors that are Shana U'Piresh, who learned in Yeshivos and went off the derech.  He added that from the eight young men and women that entered his class, four had already abandoned the faith of their upbringing.  (He, Baruch Hashem, was well raised, with an exemplary father, who gave up a high level legal career in favor of teaching children Torah.)

Why is this?  Why is Harvard Law so deadly to faith?  I believe that it is because the first thing you learn at Harvard is that you are the intellectual elite: that there is no field of human knowledge, regardless how complex and arcane, that is beyond your ability to research for a week or two and render upon it a wise and expert opinion.  You learn that if you have a question that cannot be answered, then the problem is not that you are inadequate; the problem is with the axioms that underlie the problem.  If you don't understand it, then it is wrong.  If Yaakov was mummified and buried, he was absolutely Dead, and he was not at all alive.  Harvard Law cauterizes humility.  Without humility, unanswerable questions become impossible; without humility, there cannot be faith.

Here is something from Reb Leib Chasman on the subject, with the usual OCR issues:

ובהקדם גם דברי ספר אור יהל להגר״ל  חסמן ז״ל  פ׳ ויחי שכותב לבאר
 מאמר  חז״ל  בתענית דף  ה׳  ע״ ב  דאיתא : רב  נחמן ורב  יצחק  הוו  יתבי  בסעודתא  וכו׳  א״ל  הכי  א״ר  יוחנן
 יעקב  אבינו  לא מת, א״ל וכי  בכדי  ספדו   ספדנייא  וחנטו  חנטייא  וקברו  קבריא,  א״ל  מקרא  אני  דורש  שנא׳  ואתה  אל  תירא  עבדי  יעקב  נאם ה׳  ואל  תחת  ישראל  כי  הנני  מושיעך  מרחוק  ואת  זרעך  מארץ  שבים
 מקיש  הוא  לזרעו  מה זרעו  בחיים אף  הוא  בחיים,  וכתב  לבאר  וללמד  מזה  יסוד  נפלא,  דהנה  אם  אדם
 יראה  בעיניו  את  ראובן  חבירו,  ושומע  קולו  ונדמה  לו  לקול  שמעון, ודאי  ישפוט  שחוש  שמיעתו
 הטעהו,  ובאמת  ראובן  הוא  ולא  שמעון  כי  חוש  הראיה יותר  חזק  מהוש  השמיעה,  כ״ש  אם יאמת  לו  על  אחד
 שמת  ורואהו  עומד  לפניו, מי פתי יחשוב אחרת שאמירה זו אינה מכוונת, והנה ראה זה פלא, שרב נחמן תמה ושואל: וכי   בכדי חנטו חנטיה?  בא  ר״י ומשיב לו מקרא אני דורש, ומה תשובה  היא זו? הא ראינו  שמת וחנטוהו  וקברוהו, אולם חז״ל  השמיענו  בזה, שאם נסתר  חוש  הגשמי  ע״י  מה  שמצאנו  בתוה״ק  איפכא ,
 ע״כ  מסיקים  מזה  שחוש  הגשמי  הטעה,  ורק נראים כחונטים, כי מכיון שמקרא אני דורש עפ״י הכללים
 האמיתיים  שנתנו  לנו  מסיני,  הדי  שהקב״ה  אומר כן, וממילא  ברור שרק נדמה להם שמת, אבל הי היה ,
 ככה  למדו  הז״ל  תורה, וזהו  ההבדל הגדול והריחוק  הנורא שבין דעתנו לדעת חז״ל, מן החיפך אל  החיפך ,
 שאצלנו  בעניותנו  העוה״ז: הוא  מציאות  ״והתורה  נדרשת״ ,  משא״כ  חז״ל  בעיני  קדשם המת  ראו את התורח  בחושיחם כמציאות, וכשמקרא אני דורש בטלים כל החושים הגשמים

In other words, you can say  למה לי קרא- סברא היא, but you can't say  סברא היא- מאי איכפת לי קרא


chaim b. said...

My wife likes to refer to Keats' "negative capability" for the same point you make from Fitzgerald.

Aside from the issue of humility I think there is a refusal to accept the idea that science / rational conclusions may in fact be erroneous, no matter how glatt the conclusion appears. Reason as become an avodah zarah.

Anonymous said...

Brisker Rov (not sure which) said פון א קשיא שטארבט מען נישט - which is really intended to mean that a קשיא can be an end in itself, and must not necessarily have a תירוץ. As proof he says, that because you have קשיא - asking וכי בכדי חנטי חנטייא still does not make Yakov Avinu dead.

b said...

Chaim b- thanks. New to me, and I appreciate it. I have to say, though, that while your wife is the expert, it seems to me that Keats was doing the experiential literary thing, which is opposed to rigorous understanding. The quote I saw was as follows:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason - Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

b said...

Anonymous- excellent, excellent, on several levels. But he probably said "שטארבט מען ניט"

great unknown said...

Keats? Fitzgerald??? Pikers all!

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Anonymous said...

an "explanation" for "Every such enigma"

G-d is conflicted

b said...

"conflicted" is the easy way out, and it is the path to serious trouble. It is just this that leads people to posit a trinity, or a malevolent Satan, or duality in its simplist forms, such as in Zoroastrianism or Manicheanism. Not a good path to walk on.

Anonymous said...

"It is just this...", yes yes yes,
but one needn't walk that path;
he may stand still, even relaxedly
so, now that he has his "easy" answer

Steven said...

Dear Rav B,

I am enjoying this post and discussion, as always.

Do you believe, in light of these materials, that Ya'aov Avinu is literally still alive, i.e. in a physiological sense that would (to our minds) apparently contradict being enbalmed and buried etc.?

Or, is the idea something more along the lines of: Chazal's words are *true* and meaningful and no amount of physical evidence can change that; but of course most likely (obviously?) in this case that truth and meaning is metaphorical. Profound and important, worthy of R. Yochanan and of course worthy of study, but still only metaphorical.

I admit I lean to the latter approach. But I am truly curious: if you do too, then this does not pose unanswerable questions. Do you read that aggada in a physically literal way? If not, what contradictions does it raise?


b said...

Steven, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I had been consciously avoiding addressing just that question since writing the post. It is true that many agados are metaphorical, and in that case there is no question at all. But in this case, where Reb Yochanan's drasha was contradicted with evidence of Yaakov's actual death, the Gemara didn't resolve the points brought up by the questioner, nor did he answer that Ein meishivin al hadrush. He seems to have disagreed with the entire premise of the question: The questioner assumed that contradiction proves error, and the response was that contradiction does not de-legitimize authentic drash.

It seems to me that the answer was aimed at the root of the question, and states a rule that for authentic drasha, contradiction by apparent reality does not matter. How do we resolve the contradiction? Maybe it varies; it could be that one is metaphorical, or that there is another level at which there is no contradiction, or that ostensibly incompatible realities might co-exist.

great unknown said...

Is Eliyahu Hanavi alive or dead? How was Rabbeinu HaKadosh motzi his wife in the chiyuv kiddush for many weeks after his death?

To understand this issues, we have to redefine our understanding of life and death, and particularly the proportions of biology and spirituality in the life of a person. Once that is done, we can understand that for some, the biologic is a trivial portion of their existence even when they are considered by physicians to be hale and hearty. Moshe Rabbeinu had transcended the necessity for food, e.g.

But this is kindergarten kabbalah, and has no place in a sophisticated, if about-to-die but still-be-alive, forum such as this.

Eli said...

Again, Mazal-Tov!

Compare to R. Yochanan in BB 75 regarding ושמתי כדכד שמשותיך.

That notwithstanding, I basically agree with Steven (and humbly disagree with RLC). A proof or disproof from reality (if valid) is as strong as any other proof.

Thus, I believe the pshat in Taanis is as follows:

First R. Yochana was qouted to say יעקב אבינו לא מת without a source. This can be confronted with reality of course, and waived away altogether. However, when the answer מקרא אני דורש was given, meaning that this was derived by Darchey Hadrush (I assume, Chazal had Mesorah, which we lost, for their exact usage: what can and cannot be learned from psukim), then this conclusion יעקב אבינו לא מת is certainly true. Yet, due to the proof from reality we must conclude it to be interpreted metaphorically.

For the sake of people nervous to disagree with statues such as R. Leib Chasman (me included), I looked up and found this R"Y Hazaken MiTrani, brought in Shiltey Giborim here:

(see also an expanded version from manuscript: )

Barzilai said...

As this discussion winds down, let me thank you for your commments. First, the Anonymous that wrote פון א קשיא שטארבט מען נישט. Then to Chaim B and gu for Keats and Carrol. To Steven for forcing the discussion to be more forthright. To gu for the reference to kindergarten kabbala. And especially to Eli for that excellent Maharit, although he is an exponent of the Rambam's approach, and we know what the Rambam would have said about this.

I need to mention that the b of January 4 at 6:07 is not me. But unlike most such cases, he's saying good. I think.