The Other Student in Yael Leibowitz' Shiur
This past week, in the wake of the horrors that Chaim Walder wrought upon the Jewish world, many have taken to their keyboards to add their voices to the condemnation. More powerfully, there is a feeling that perhaps this will be the event that finally ushers in a new age of transparency for those power, and protection for victims of abuse.
From within those many voices, the one that resonated strongest with me were the words of Yael Leibowitz, who penned a masterful essay on the importance of nuance in education. After all, I am a Rabbi and teacher.
(If you have not read the article, I encourage you to do so. For those reading this in the weekly on Shabbos I will attempt to summarize the main tenet of her argument shortly.)
My goal in this article is to add to the conversation that Mrs. Leibowitz began, with the hopes that this will further honest inquiry into better and more sensitive teaching.
Mrs. Leibowitz begins with the beautiful and powerful story of Sesame Street's writers realizing that their long running gag – Mr. Snuffleupagus, “Snuffy”, being only visible to children – had run its course. They acknowledged that they had unwittingly constructed a world in which children's feelings about adults were not validated by other adults. The revelation of Snuffy to the adult characters of the show was thus a promise to the children watching the show at home: Adults should believe you.
The article then pivots to the classroom of a “young, fresh, idealistic teacher,” teaching the story of David and Bat-Sheva. Inherent within this lesson is a glaring inconsistency: The Tanach describes David as having sinned, and yet (at least one opinion in) the Talmud proclaims “Anyone who says that David sinned [with Batsheba] is nothing other than mistaken.”
Despite the enormity of the question that this contradiction evokes, the teacher has a tidy explanation: “The people we read about in the Bible were on a different level than we are... If they were chosen by God, that means they were righteous. God knows more than we do, and it’s not for us to judge the actions of tzadikim, righteous people.”
Mrs. Leibowitz, then, eloquently and brilliantly describes the pain and turmoil experienced by “the girl in the yellow turtleneck” a victim of abuse. When presented by the reality that tzadikim are not to be judged, she knows that she will never be believed when she speaks to another adult about the abuse perpetrated by the “tzadik” that causes her so much pain and shame.
Thus far is the set up for the rest of the article, and, thus far I agree with everything Yael Leibowitz has said.
I wholeheartedly agree that the childish rendering of David HaMelech as being beyond the capacity to sin, is both educationally and emotionally destructive. It is also, obviously not true, as evidenced by the Pesukim and Chazal in countless places. Such a lesson is disastrous to the girl in the yellow turtleneck, and it is an irresponsible misrepresentation of the text.
But how then should we resolve the fact that the Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeni, in the name of Rabbi Yonatan is seemingly at odds with the text? How can he say that David did not sin? The strawman teacher in the article is more than content to dismiss the plain meaning of the text, and Mrs. Leibowitz is absolutely correct that this teacher is wrong.
But what this teacher is willing to do to the text of the Tanach, Mrs. Leibowitz is willing to do to the Talmud: that is, to dismiss it entirely. As to why the sages would say that David did not sin, she explains:
...later interpreters needed to create models of perfection to make the values they were espousing come alive. ... in the collective imagination of those that so badly craved renewed independence under a Jewish monarch.
Important Editorial Note:
I find such treatment of Chazal worrisome and educationally problematic. I felt that I should write and post something in response. But as much as I would like to stand up for Chazal, Yael Leibowitz is a person too. Defending Chazal while attacking another Jew seems decidedly counterproductive, and in general, I am not interested in the fury, aggression and defensiveness of online social media conversations.
So I reached out to Mrs. Leibowitz directly to address my concern with this point, and sent her the first draft of this article. She was gracious enough to engage in a robust conversation, and we concluded that educating the importance of Tanach as well as Talmud is essential, and non-negotiable. We differ on how to draw the line between distinguishing and dismissing – a measure, perhaps that depends largely on the age and experience of our students.
And so, following in Mrs. Leibowitz model of understanding the power of subtle messaging in education, I wish to extend our caution to the way Chazal are perceived in our classrooms and homes.
We should not allow our students to entertain, God Forbid, that the Talmud itself is part of the embarrassingly long line of Rabbinic cover-ups. If the solution to the schism between the Tanach and Talmud is to conclude that the Rabbis of the Talmud were covering up the deviances of David, then we are effectively equating David HaMelech with Chaim Walder, and the Chachmei HaTalmud to the CW's rabbinic fig leaves.
Imagine the sweet boy sitting in the front row of Tanach class. He's a good boy, a good student. He enjoys participating, he enjoys the lively debates. He is smart, intuitive and easily makes connections between the lessons taught in class and the news he hears at the Shabbos table and in Shul. But he too has a dark secret.
It was barely a month ago that he picked up his brother's iPad and discovered some pictures and videos that made him feel excited, guilty and dirty. Since that night, he's snuck a few more moments looking at that iPad. He knows it's wrong. He feels the shame welling up in his heart and mind. Putting on Tefillin, opening a siddur, he feels like a phony, a faker. He knows he should stop. Sometimes, he wishes he could speak to his father, or to his rebbe. But a part of him doesn't want to stop. After all, even David HaMelech could not control his urges. Which means it ok for him too, right?
As his willpower to slowly erodes, guilt gives way to habit and he carries his shame quietly. His excited voice in the classroom and during Tefillah give way to tired compliance, and passive resistance. The twinkle in his eye begins to dim.
One Sunday morning, his father walks in to wake him up for minyan. He doesn't want to go. “Abba” he challenges, “where does the Torah say that I should to go to minyan?” His father replies, “Chazal tell us. It's a Gemara in Brachos... The Shulchan Aruch paskens it.”
But the boy already knows: if the text of the Torah doesn't say it, then it's mere interpretation. He already knows the refrain, heard from countless disengaged adults: It's just a de'rabanan. It's just a medrash. Who knows which agenda this particular obligation was concocted to achieve? God didn't tell me to go to minyan. And I don't want to go.
His father leaves for minyan alone. The boy feels broken, sad and lonely. How can he tell his father that he simply cannot face Hashem this morning, after the things he looked at last night? How can he admit it to himself?
Instead, he'll delete his browser history, hide the traces. After all, that's exactly what the sages of the Talmud do: “Anyone who says that David sinned is mistaken.” Cover it up. It's what we've always done.
There have been great failures in the history of our people. Terrors perpetrated and pain inflicted, much of it by men in positions of power. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend it did not and that does not happen. But we do ourselves and our students a terrible disservice when we assume that these crimes, and the attempts to cover them up are the backbone of our Mesora. They are an abomination.
Perhaps then, when we are challenged with contradictions between Tanach and Talmud (or p'shat and drash) we should understand that neither can be so readily dismissed without devastating consequences. Indeed, centuries of our greatest commentators have struggled with reconciling this and many other issues, without resorting to abandoning either text.
To the particular question of David's sin, there are many profound and inspiring understandings that teachers might offer. For the purpose of illustration, before the bell rings, I'll share two thoughts; the first, offered by the Maharal (paraphrased for brevity):
In the Tanach David is portrayed as a sinner. He is accused, and admits his failings. And yet, the Talmud is still entirely correct. David did not technically violate any prohibition of the Torah. That is to say, he had perfect Halachik justification for what he was doing. But his motivations were not pure, despite the technical lack of violation. The Tanach, thus, tells us the story as it does, because the intellectual prowess to justify our actions does not make them right, and does not make them moral.
The lesson of Chazal, according to the Maharal, strengthens and deepens the simple reading of the Pesukim. The girl in the yellow turtleneck learns that no amount of excuses can absolve her abuser of his crimes.
As to the boy in the front row, the Abarbanel tells us that despite the great shame that the Tanach brings on David, the entire episode is revealed in the Navi:
כדי שילמדו בעלי חטאות לשוב אל ה' בכל לבם ובכל נפשם כאשר עשה דוד, ויבטחו בו ית' שיכפר בעד חטאתם כאשר כפר לדוד – So that all those who fail should learn how to return to Hashem in Teshuva, with all their hearts and souls, as David did. And he should feel confident to know that Hashem will provide him with atonement, as He did for David.
Both children make their way to lunch knowing that while life is not simple, our texts and traditions give us tools with which to make our way forward.
Perhaps we should not be so quick to move on to “how the story of what happened is used as a starting point for discussions about piety, and about divorce rites in the ancient world.” There are many other places to have those conversations. Once we have acknowledged that these stories have intently personal ramifications, rather than quickly move on, we should be teaching our students to grapple the tension. Authentic engagement in Talmud Torah does not demand that we have neat solutions to every issue. The desire to pretend that we have them is inherently problematic – regardless of what those solutions are.
In my class, whenever we're learning a text, and a student says “Rebbe, this doesn't make sense,” I'm careful to interject that it's better to say “I don't understand this.” There are many texts that we leave with a “צריך עיון” – more analysis is needed.
As much as we must recognize that there are children who identify with Bat-Sheva, there are others who identify with David. And I dare say, those who might, all too often, feel like Uriah (perhaps a topic for another day.)
But there is truth and hope for each of our students in the worlds and words of Torah. All of Torah; Tanach, Talmud and Medrash alike. The study of Torah is the deepest connection to Hashem's Wisdom and the tradition of our nation in understanding it should not be so readily disregarded as mere interpretation.
Hashem should help us that the words we say to the young hearts and minds entrusted to our care are all דברי אלקים חיים. That our children should know only safety, simcha and hope. That no one, and nothing should steal the light from their eyes, the trust in their hearts, and their connection to Klal Yisrael.