Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishpatim—Final Answer[s]?

Like I described in my post Eikev: Where Does It Say?…, the part of Matan Torah that appears at the end of this week’s parsha may serve as an example of an educational misimpression, in this that being that two of the central themes of Matan Torah—“naaseh v’nishma” and Moshe’s 40-day/40-night private shiur—are here, and not in Yisro [where “naaseh” appears, as opposed to the double formulation here].

As I discussed in more detail in Yisro—Bechira vs. K’fiya: Infantilization, this may have a lot to do with the fact that, as the Gemara Shabbos 88b details, the real k’fiya involved the “nishma”, or the ba’al peh part of Torah. So it’s no accident that there are both a “naaseh” in one place and a “naaseh v’nishma” in another: more specifically, despite another educational misimpression—that being that saying “naaseh” before “nishma” was an unqualified ma’alah—we see that the situation is more complicated. In a certain sense one can entertain a solid hava amina, at least, that it was easier to simply say “naaseh” if one could just never have to deal with the “nishma”.

Where these themes come together here can possibly be found in the Rashis on 23:2 [“Lo sihyeh acharei rabim le-ra’os”], which, when I took Intro to Bible at YU with Rabbi David Sykes, was held up as the paradigmatic stating-his-thesis Rashi, where he possibly picks the one pasuk in the Torah that, ironically, completely confounds his approach [not only that, but he says so beferush: he quotes most of the Gemaras explaining the various inyanim, but he says that “none of this explains the pasuk “al ofanav”, which he then declined to even attempt to do].

What might even more ironic is the theme of the pasuk itself: voting and other democratic procedures of Sanhedrin and batei dinin. This is as close to a “nishma” as a “naaseh”: that is, the centrality of this pasuk as both a linchpin of halachic jurisprudence and the ultimate resistance to Rashi’s penchant for p’shat indicate how much more process- than result-oriented Torah is.

To be sure, the results count for—a lot. In a shiur I attended given by Rabbi Jeremy Wieder about the halachic implication of free inquiry, one inescapable conclusion was that reaching certain conclusions were certainly halachically and hashkafically out of bounds. However, using Maimonidean examples from both Mishneh Torah [Avodas Kochavim 2:2,3] and Moreh Nevuchim [2:25], he showed that restrictions on said conclusions don’t always necessarily preclude the legitimacy of pursuing the inquiries that precede them.

Two further ironies, both touched upon by Rabbi Wieder: one, that Rambam needed to follow his own line of inquiry to arrive at the conclusion in Mishneh Torah where he expresses extreme misgivings about conducting said inquiries, and said line of inquiry certainly, on the surface, violated his own proscriptions; and two, that [like most such Rambam’s] reading between the lines leads you to a halachic conclusion other than the one ostensibly so strongly proferred. In this case, that would mean that restrictions placed upon inquiries can never be as proscriptive as those placed upon conclusions.

The more yeshivish contemporary conventions that militate against asking questions [despite the proclamations issuing from various publications from said corners that deny such mind-control tactics are being used in their chinuch approaches] may actually prove to be more counterproductive: it may actually ultimately lead to one reaching the WRONG conclusions when one doesn’t learn to ask the right—and wrong—questions. Or, even better: the key might be to learn how to turn what might be a “wrong” conclusion into just another question, so that the correct conclusion is eventually arrived at.

Just to sum up, the fact that the posuk upon which all this centers has to do with Sanhedrins and batei dinin indicate that this is not simply a “chinuch” issue. This eventually goes to the highest levels.

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