Friday, March 9, 2007

A Letter from R. Zev Farber

Maligning a Rabbi – Did Yated Ne’eman Get it Right?
An Open Letter to the Yated Ne’eman

Dear Editor: in this piece, I respond to the recent attack on my person written by Yisroel Lichter and published in Yated Ne’eman, February 2007. It is well known that Mr. Lichter’s article also attacked my Yeshiva, and my Rebbeim and colleagues. Although they have taken the path of ha-ne’elavim v'einam olvim (those who are insulted but do not insult in return), for my part, I feel the need to express the truth for its own sake.

The attack reads: “Rabbi Zev Farber… in an article that YCT was not ashamed to publish on its own website… has the audacity to write outright kefirah in the interpretation of Chazal in the Gemora.(sic) In an article which he brazenly titles: ‘Choosing a Wife – Did Yaakov get it right?’ We do not want to sully the pages of the Yated with Rabbi Farber’s outrageous critique of Yaakov Avinu. Suffice it to say that it is an unforgivable bizayon of the Avos Hakedoshim and Imahos Hakedoshos and the height of Chutzpah, stupidity and ignorance that goes against everything that Chazal have taught us about them… Are there any minimum standards of Emunah in Divrei Chazal on how to learn and understand the incidents mentioned in the Torah?”

To best understand my rebuttal, one should read my article in its entirety, available at

I would first like to point out that the ideas in my article, which are based on an approach found in classical meforshim as I will demonstrate below, was written for a particular audience. The article was meant for members of Modern Orthodox congregations and was intended to articulate the ideas of these meforshim, as well as some of my own ideas, in modern paraphrase. As in any article of this kind, a degree of poetic license is legitimate, though I admit that a few statements could have been phrased less provocatively. The title was chosen specifically to catch the eye. In retrospect, I probably should have been less flashy in my presentation.

Mr. Lichter’s thesis is that it is essentially wrong to assess the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in a critical way, and by doing so, I have denied the basic understanding of the Torah and its heroes offered by Chazal. Is this true?

A. Firstly, there is a strong basis in Chazal for critiquing the Avot; Yaakov and Rachel in particular.

In Genesis Rabba (72) it states: “Rabbi Shimon taught: “Because [Rachel] disparaged the righteous man (Yaakov) she cannot be buried with him. This is what it means when it says: ‘Therefore, he will lie with you tonight’, he will lie with you (forever); he will not lie with me.’ … Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: “Leah lost the mandrakes and gained tribes and burial, Rachel gained the mandrakes but lost tribes and burial.” This passage seems to be a substantial criticism of Rachel’s priorities in comparison with Leah’s.

Also, in Midrash Sekhel Tov (Gen. 42”12), in reference to the finding of Yosef’s cup in Benyamin’s bag: “‘And they found the goblet in Benyamin’s sack’ – Once the goblet was found in his sack, [his brothers] began to mock him. They said: ‘Thief son of a thief! Thus your mother humiliated our father with the Terafim!’”

Or, again in Genesis Rabba (Theodor-Albeck 74): “Why did Rachel die first? Rabbi Yehuda says it is because she spoke before her sister.”

So too this passage from Yalqut Mayan Ganim (quoted in Torah Shleima, Gen. 30”1): “Why was Rachel punished with death on the way? Because she compared a creation to its creator (by asking Yaakov for a child).”

In Tractate Shabbat (10b) the Talmud learns from Yaakov how not to parent: “Rava bar Mahsia said in the name of Rav Hama bar Guria in the name of Rav: ‘One should never make one child stand out from the others by your treatment of him, for because of two shekels worth of fine wool which Yaakov gave Yosef beyond his brothers, his brothers became jealous of him, and it all ended with our forefathers going down to Egypt.’”

This passage from Genesis Rabba (Theodor-Albeck 71) offers a serious critique of Yaakov: “…as it says ‘Yaakov got angry’. God said to him: ‘Is this the way one responds to downtrodden women?! By your life, your sons will stand before hers!’” (Also see Midrash Tanhuma, Va-Yeitzei 19, for a similar reading.)

Midrash Tanhuma (Buber, siman 11) actually has Leah criticizing Yaakov: “The whole night [after the wedding] Leah acted as if she were Rachel. When he got up in the morning, and he saw that it was Leah, he said to her: ‘Daughter of a liar! Why did you deceive me?!’ She said to him: ‘And why did you deceive your own father? When he said to you: “Are you my son Esau?” You said to him: “I am Esau your first born son.” And you ask “Why did you deceive me?” Did your father not say (to Esau): “Your brother came with deception”?’ From these words of rebuke with which she scolded him he began to hate her.”

I think that the above more than adequately demonstrates that there is, in fact, a basis in Chazal for the general orientation of my article.

B. Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, even if I had had no basis in Chazal, it would still not have been a heresy. The question of whether one is bound to interpret a story in the Torah – as opposed to a mitzvah or halakha - the way Chazal do, is an old question. The consensus amongst the Geonim, backed up by many Rishonim and Aharonim, is to unequivocally permit it.

For example, in Rav Shmu’el ha-Naggid’s introduction to the Talmud (under the term “aggada”), he says: “Anything which [Chazal] offered as interpretations of verses, each person offered what happened to occur to him and what made sense to him. Therefore, whatever makes sense (to you) from these interpretations you should accept, and the rest should not be taken into account.” A similar statement can be found in the Sefer ha-Eshkol (Albeck, Laws of the Sefer Torah pgs. 157-8) in the names of Rav Sherira and Rav Hai. This is also discussed by Ibn Ezra, in his introduction to the Torah (part 5), and by Rashbam, in his opening comments on Genesis and Parshat Mishpatim.

Rav David Tzvi Hoffman, in the introduction to his commentary on Va-Yikra (pg. 6), quotes Rav Shmu’el ha-Naggid, and states: “The sayings, stories, wisdom and exhortations of our sages, collectively referred to as Aggada, whose point is to convey a moral or an explanation of a scriptural passage which contains no law – one cannot claim that they were given at Sinai, and we are not at all obliged to accept them.” Rabbi Leo Jung, in his book Fallen Angels (pg. 4) states in reference to Aggada: “They have no authority; they form no part of Jewish religious belief.”

Though this last is, perhaps, an overstatement, it should be clear at this point, that even if I were wrong about my interpretation it would still not have been kefirah. People are entitled to make mistakes in this area without being categorized as heretics.

C. Thirdly, anyone who has studied Chumash seriously knows that openness to critiquing its heroes is a well accepted and documented practice amongst the meforshim. For example, the Ralbag (Va-Yeitzei, To’elet 22) on our very topic states: “It is worthy to remove ourselves far from the trait of jealousy, for this is a very base trait. One can see that since Rachel only desired children due to jealousy of her sister, it happened that she did not attain her desire except through exceptional hardship, which brought about her death from childbirth.”

A classic example of this type of analysis is found in the Ramban, in his commentary on the story of Avraham and Sarah going to Egypt (Genesis 12”10): “And you should know that Avraham Avinu committed a grave sin, albeit unwittingly, by bringing his righteous wife into a situation of potential iniquity, because he was afraid lest the [Egyptians] kill him. He should have trusted in God to save him and his wife…”

Rav Hirsh, commenting on this same story (Gen. 12”10-13), sums up this position beautifully: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men; indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not given to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate… Hence let us learn from our great teachers of Torah – among whom Nahmanides is certainly one of the most outstanding – that we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of the past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuine great teachers and commentators.”

This is echoed in his comment on Gen. 25”27: “In no place were our Rabbis reticent in revealing to us the weaknesses and mistakes, big and small, of the actions of our great forefathers. Specifically, through this method, they extend the Torah and strengthen its message throughout the generations.”

Rabbi Hirsch clearly conveys the message that critique of the patriarchs and matriarchs is not the privileged prerogative of Chazal but is an approach that we should – as indeed he did – adopt in parshanut ha-mikra.

Additional examples evaluating the Avot and Imahot critically are:
Rashbam on Gen. 22”1 and 32”23,
Bekhor Shor on Gen. 17”19 and Gen. 16”5,
Hezkuni on the latter,
Radak (ibid),
Ramban on Gen. 16”6,
Abarbanel on Gen. 27 (page 307 in the standard edition),
Tzror ha-Mor on Gen. 15”2, 15”9, 17”17 and 35”1.
Kli Yakkar on Gen. 37”1&2,
Netziv (Gen. 29”30-31),
Torat Moshe (of the Hatam Sofer) on Gen. 29”18/30,

From the above quotes and references it should be clear, again, that it was not only Chazal who would assess the Avot and Imahot critically, but Rishonim and even Acharonim would do so. One must surmise that these meforshim were clearly teaching us a lesson on how we ought to approach the biblical narratives and heroes.

D. Finally, is there a basis in the meforshim for my interpretation in specific?

We are all aware of the Midrashic interpretation summarized by Rashi; that Leah was destined for Esau, and, therefore, Yaakov chose to marry Rachel. However, this is not the only understanding of the story.

The Ralbag (Va-Yeitzei, To’elet 10) says: “…it is fitting for a man to choose a woman without blemish, for the children he will have with her will be healthier and more intact. This is why Yaakov did not choose Leah, as her eyes were watery, which is an illness. He chose Rachel for she was lovely of form and lovely of appearance, which would be a way of keeping his desires in check, so that he would not think about other women.

The Radak (Gen. 29”18) takes up the possible objection that Yaakov was too righteous to think this way: “One can ask: since righteous men want to marry in order to have children, why would they look for a beautiful woman, if their intention was not in order to satisfy their desires? Nevertheless, Yaakov chose Rachel because she was very beautiful… A possible explanation is that the intention was for good, because a beautiful woman stimulates desire, and in order to have as many children as possible [the righteous men] wanted to stimulate their desires…”

Rav Yosef ibn Kaspi (Matzref la-Kesef, Gen. 29”17) writes: ““‘Leah’s eyes were soft, but Rachel was [lovely of figure and lovely of appearance]’ – this [preceding verse] introduces the reason for [the verse] following it; ‘Yaakov loved Rachel’, and everything that follows regarding Leah and Rachel… What is greatly surprising to us and to any pious person is this: How could Yaakov Avinu choose beautiful maidens?! Ibn Kaspi is criticizing Yaakov here, for using appearances as his main criterion for choosing his wife.

The Zohar (Margolis, Gen. pg. 305) has arguably the most extreme interpretation: “Rabbi Elazar said: ‘When Yaakov stumbled upon a woman at the well, why was it not Leah? Was she not the one who established for him so many tribes? However, God did not want to match Leah with Yaakov openly… Furthermore, [God did this] in order to attract Yaakov’s eye and heart with the beauty of Rachel, so that he would establish his home [in Haran], and because of her he would become matched with Leah, who would establish for him so many tribes.” The Zohar understands the entire well scene as a sort of lure devised by God. Apparently, according to the Zohar, Leah was so unattractive to Yaakov that he would have been unable to come to the conclusion on his own that she was his real intended!

The above sources are ample evidence that interpretations other than Rashi’s were commonly circulated on this topic, some of which are rather critical.

I am aware that it is difficult to hear these sorts of interpretations, and many would prefer to cling to the view of the Avot as being far beyond any assessment or critique which could possibly be offered by us. As a middle ground, I would like to quote the Ran in his Derashot (#6): “It is necessary to explain why the simple reading of the text regarding Bat Sheva is written as if King David really sinned (if we know from Chazal that he did not)? For it is the way of scripture to cover up the faults [of its heros]… and if so, how could the scripture present the Bat Sheva and Uriah story as if it were a terrible sin? The answer is that both the revealed and the hidden in this story represent great fundamentals for those who are in the process of repentance… This is why scripture presents this is as if it were a terrible sin, for the little that David actually sinned, as Chazal admit that he did, was considered, for him, to be as if a regular man had sinned in exactly the way described in the verses. Scripture teaches us here that even if a man were to sin terribly, it can be forgiven him, just like David’s sin was forgiven him, with all its apparent seriousness, as presented in the simple meaning of the verses.”

In other words, according to the Ran, the Navi is projecting an image which may not have been an accurate historical description of David in order to provide us with a paradigm of sin and repentance. One can use this approach to understand the meforshim cited above; it can additionally function as a prism through which my own Devar Torah may be more easily viewed. It is the pedagogic value of the story of Yaakov and Rachel that was the concern of the Devar Torah, rather than the making of any definitive statements about the essential nature of Yaakov.

Based on the numerous references listed above, it is clear that Mr. Lichter’s accusation about my learning and alleged heresy was the unfortunate consequence of his own lack of familiarity with classical sources. I respectfully submit these references in the hope that the editor of Yated Ne’eman will recognize the baselessness of Mr. Lichter’s claims and print the requisite retraction.

Readers with questions are welcome to contact me.

Rabbi Zev Farber
1461 Lively Ridge Rd NE, Atlanta, GA 30329
404 693 4494