Tuesday, October 08, 2013

is life graded on a curve?

I'm enjoying doing a few shorter points rather than a long post:

1) Rashi quotes a debate as to whether “tzadik… b’dorosav” is meant as a praise of Noach, that he was a tzadik despite those around him, or qualifier, telling us that Noach was a tzadik only when measured against those around him, but not in comparison to Avraham Avinu.  R’ Yerucham Lebovitz writes that the machlokes here is not about whether Noach would have measured up to Avraham or not.  Everyone agrees to the facts on the ground of who Noach was -- his tzidkus stood out as exceptional compared with those around him, but he would fall short in comparison to Avraham.  The question is how, given those facts, do we assess Noach’s accomplishments?  Do we measure achievement in subjective terms, with a curve or handicap based on the challenges or opportunities an individual is given, or is achievement judged against an objective standard, irrespective of other factors?  Should Noach be considered wanting if he did not measure up to Avraham's achievements even though he lived in a different time and place with different challenges?

Let's apply the idea: let’s say a guy is raised in the home of a boor who knows nothing of Torah and mitzvos.  At some point this individual becomes aware of what Torah is all about, he becomes a shomer Shabbos, studies chumash and rashi, gives tzedaka, and does his best to keep whatever he learns.  Had he grown up in a different community, with different opportunities, he would have become an even bigger talmid chacham and yarei shamayim, but he did his best given the cards he was dealt.  How much credit does such a person deserve?  Is it fair to compare him to someone (of similar intelligence and ability) raised next door to a yeshiva who goes on to finish shas 10 times in his life?  And if you do make such a comparison, is it fair to say the person who only learned chumash and mishnayos fell short? 

R’ Yerucham is asserting that if Avraham earned a 100% on the test of tzidkus and Noach only earned an 85%, the fact that Noach lived in a time and place that may have posed greater challenges to his growth does not change his overall grade.  There is no curve on the test of life.  The fact that an individual may have to work much harder to achieve greateness (assuming he has that potential) does not excuse him from failing to do so or earn him any more credit should he fall short. 

I find this idea frightening and something inside of me protests that it’s not just.  R’ Yerucham makes no attempt to soften or temper the message.  Aderaba, the point of the mussar is to portray Divine justice in all its harshness and scare a person into shaping up.  Still, I’m troubled by the whole idea. 

2) The EU has declared circumcision “a violation of the physical integrity of children.”  A writer for the Telegraph comments, “What these fashionable loathers of circumcision don't seem to realise is that if you ban circumcision, you ban Jewish boys; you make it impossible for Jewish boys to exist.”  I don’t know about that – I would guess that they do fully realize the effect of their actions.  After all, it's not like Europe has a very good track record when it comes to treating Jews fairly.

Just to make sure I understand modern liberalism: a mother has the right to choose to terminate the life of a fetus without any consideration for the child’s “physical integrity,” but a parent has no right to choose to have a piece of foreskin cut off the child when it is 8 days old? 

3) Noach is called a “tzadik tamim” at the beginning of the parsha, but then later, when Hashem tells him to enter the ark, he is just called a “tzadik.”  It sounds like Noach underwent a change for the worse!  Rashi addresses the problem and tells us that when speaking to a person you sing some of their praises, but not all (R’ Soloveitchik understood this Chazal not just as a restriction on how much praise to lavish, but as a chiyuv to make sure to sing some of a person’s praises in their presence!)  Therefore, Hashem omitted some of Noach’s accolades.   
The Maor VaShemech takes a contrarian view and rather than explain away Noach's loss of temimus, he accepts it as a positive.  The purity of a tamim can sometimes only be maintained by withdrawal from contact with a sullied society.  A childlike innocence is admirable, but it’s not a good survival mechanism in a world of cheats and con artists.  Noach's mission demanded that he not withdraw, but rather that he try to engage those around him.  Building the ark wasn’t just a construction project – it was an outreach project, the last chance for Noach to tell his generation that they needed to change their ways or face destruction.  He could only do that by sacrificing a bit of his being a tamim, but as a result, he was perhaps a bigger tzadik.


  1. 1) comfort yourself by learning the Michtav Mai'Eliyahu chelek 1, pg 111 [kuntres HaBechira], and especially perakim 2 and 3.

    2) Ya'akov also was an "Ish Tam" when he was yoshev ohalim. In the house of Lavan, "achiv ani be'rama'us"

  2. Wouldn't it be nice if the mechabrim of hashkafa sefarim held themselves the the same standards as lomdus or halacha sefarim? In the latter, you're expected to develop and prove your arguments, not just to rely on Daas Torah. I guess part of mussar is hisbatlus to a rebbi- part of the process is just opening yourself up to him and accepting whatever he says. Once you let the critical faculty in, you'll never be mekabel anything. When it comes to something so important and life changing, the Yetzer Hara will always find teirutzim to keep it out.

  3. You are mechavein to the Maor vaShemesh, as he also uses Ya'akov Avinu's behavior to prove the point.

    B, I have trouble with such a sharp distinction between halacha and hashkafa. I remember when R' Ahron Soloveitchik started flying to NY to say shiurim and started to give what he called a chumash shiur midweek. He introduced it by saying he is deliberately not calling it a haskafa shiur because hashkafa does not exist without a basis in sources (like chumash). Of course it's not like a Ketzos or a R' Chaim, but it has to be rooted in something and make sense. I don't know what the study of machshava amounts to if not thinking critically about values. I thought that's what we are supposed to be doing? As far as what you wrote about the yetzer, I would think that the yetzer ha'ra has far more power in keeping out what you accept only by virtue of mindless obedience than keeping out what you have concluded to be true based on thought and analysis.

  4. Halacha, Hashkafa, and Pilpul are all similar in being axiomatic systems withoperators. However, the axioms are not identical, nor are the operators. Both, in each field, are determined by mesorah. Furthermore, the application of the operators, and determination of the axioms, depends very much on the neshama of the person involved.

    Which is why the Shaim HaGedolim, erech Rambam, brings in the name of Rav Chayim Vital that since the Rambam was from the sitra d'smola [din], he could not grasp kabala, which requires tiferes. Simple and obvious...

  5. Rabbi Moshe Faskowitz of Queens once pointed out to me the Gemara in BB 8a,
    רבי פתח אוצרות בשני בצורת אמר יכנסו בעלי מקרא בעלי משנה בעלי גמרא בעלי הלכה בעלי הגדה אבל עמי הארץ אל יכנסו
    The list goes upwards. So why are the בעלי הגדה at the top???
    He said that when you have to prove something, who you are is less important. But Hashkafa, Aggadah, Mussar, stems from your madreiga in ruchnius, and requires far more gadlus than merely being a poseik.
    I don't particularly like the idea, but I don't see any other way to learn that Gemara.

    1. As in: remez, drush, and sod are lifnim from pshat - i.e. more ruchnius.

  6. Of course, baalei hagada doesn't mean every shmendrik that darshens it refers to people who have sn official shteller. '