On Agendas (A Credo) (Ideas #27)


Several respondents "accused" me of having an agenda in my article on parshat Vayishlach (ideas 26). More specifically, it appeared as if I started with my conclusion and only subsequently found the sources to support it, ignoring or omitting conflicting viewpoints in Chazal. While I am not sure they are right in this particular case, I believe such a methodology to be entirely legitimate. Not only don't I view such methodology as problematic, I think it would be a good thing for more like-minded people to follow it.

As for the legitimacy of starting with conclusions, it is well-known that much of our body of knowledge is based on inductive reasoning (i.e. starting with a thesis and then seeing whether the data fits). In such a process, one does not have to consider every conflicting theory of how to analyze the data. In bringing various statements from Chazal, I have yet to read a true parshan who feels they are presenting THE view of Chazal. Even in the rare instance when Chazal seem to only present one view of a passage, problem or issue, the absence of other material cannot necessarily be viewed as unanimity of opinion among Chazal. In quoting Chazal or any later parshanim, one is simply providing corroboration of ideas from some authorities in the field. One is not denying that other viewpoints exist.


Compare this with a prominent educator's introduction to a recent essay:

I have avoided citations from Torah literature. I do not feel myself qualified to interpret the words of our sages nor do I feel that I have the right to attempt to use Chazal as a means of proving my contentions. Doing so would have cheapened the words of the Torah and also might have led to adapting Chazal to fit one's personal theory rather than adapting one's theory to fit Chazal.

If we are not to try to check our own ideas against those of Chazal, where does that leave the centrality of Chazal in all subsequent Jewish Thought? Are we only to study their words as an intellectual exercise? Out of fear of misreading Chazal, we would relegate their thoughts to irrelevance.


This should not be confused with distorting sources from their simple meaning or obvious context. This obscures the intended meaning of the original source and is especially pernicious when used to prove a theory. In my opinion, this is a serious weakness in much of classical Chassidic parshanut.


Regarding the contemporary wariness of polemics, polemical writing is a variation on the theme of "agenda". The fact that an agenda is motivated by wanting to disprove something else does not imply falsehod. Many interesting nuances are revealed as a result of the passion to find them. What can be said against polemics is that the main thrust of the teaching may often become irrelevant once the intellectual threat that engenders the polemic has faded. For example, as classical biblical criticism has become less in vogue, many ideas of Hertz and Cassuto become greatly irrelevant, even while they remain as true as when they were written. Thus,if many of my writings contain anti-haredi polemics, that does not make them less true. I look forward to the day when the main thrust of those writings becomes obvious in the orthodox world and so, irrelevant. Until that day, it is incumbent upon those concerned with the haredi agenda to write about it. (That being said, it is should be expressed with love and admiration of the good that exists in the haredi world.)


As to the desirability of an agenda, one merely needs to look to our most highly regarded parshan, Rashi. In the footsteps of Chazal, Rashi is clearly looking for different type of nuances when it comes to tzaddikim as opposed to reshaim. While the nuances may objectively exist, they would often not have been found without an agenda. For example, when Rashi (Bereshit 30:1) posits that Rachel's jealousy of Leah is of a virtuous nature, it makes it easier to understand Rachel's words later when she names Dan and Naftali (i.e. her words make much sense when viewed as an acknowledgement of her earlier inferiority to Leah). We would have not seen any need for Rashi's nuanced understanding unless we follow his agenda that precludes Rachel from being guilty of base jealousy.


While the subjective desire to confirm a thesis creates obvious problems, neither is complete objectivity always an ideal in the search for truth. As mentioned above, subjectivity often gives us the passion to search for ideas that lay beyond that for which the clinical observer will have patience.


The question may then be, what is a legitimate agenda. Some may argue that Rashi's above agenda derives its legitimacy from Jewish tradition. While such authority may give Rashi greater license, I am not convinced that any idea not based on tradition cannot be considered before it is proven deductively. On the contrary, I would see the role of clear unanimous tradition as a veto only to something in contradiction to it. Anything else shoud be welcome to the forum of ideas, wherein it will be judged through the test of time.


The scientific thinking of the past century and the post-modern thinking of more recent times have dealt us a double blow. We have been given two models that deny us either creativity or factual rigor. This is paralleled in our own world wherein the yeshivot(modern as well as haredi) limit serious creativity to theoretical excercises or microcosmic novellae of little ultimate consequence, while the creativity of neo-hasidic circles usually precludes true text-based rigor. In the past, it was precisely the maintenance of this tension between creativity and textual rigor that produced much of our great literature.


If great minds exist today, they seem to be under self-imposed arrest. There is a fear of academic objectivity on the one side and "daas Torah" on the other. As a result, we are constantly checking ourselves by standards which would have stifled most of the classic writings found on our bookshelves. In our times, when many people need to bolster their religious inspiration, the cautious quiet of our greats and potential greats does not seem helpful.


Some of the French Existentialists spoke about the need for what they called "engagement," the need to take stands as opposed to sitting on the sidelines. Great intellectual issues are in the process of being determined by the Jewish people. Our failure to make adaptive historical decisions may have drastic consequences. As such, it is time to regain our boldness and dare to pursue appropriate agendas.

As far as I am concerned, the house is on fire. Now is not the time to check how clear and pure are our waters. Rather, anyone with access to water must throw as much of it as he or she can to douse out the fire.