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Home » Vayechi

Vayechi: Is Judaism Dogmatic?

Submitted by on December 24, 2006 – 6:43 amNo Comment | 3,069 views

Fact or Myth?

Judaism encourages us to think for ourselves and to question everything. We are not meant to blindly accept, but to explore, analyze, debate and conclude. True or false?

Two Names

Joseph had two sons. He named the first one, Menashe because “Nashani Elokim,” G-d allowed me to forget my hardships and my father's home. He named the the second sonEphraim, because, “Hifarni Elokim,” G-d made me prosperous in the land of my suffering. (1)

In their literal meaning, the names follow Joesph's life story. In his father's home, Joseph was reviled by his brothers and sold into slavery. In Egypt, he quarreled with his mistress and was thrown into a dungeon. He was eventually liberated and was able to forget his troubles. Hence the name, Menashe. In addition to finding peace he was appointed viceroy of Egypt. Hence the name, Ephraim.

Torah Study

Our sages offered a different interpretation. “Nashani Eolkimn,” G-denabled me to forget, the Torah that I studied in my father's home. “Hifrani Elokim,” G-d made me prosperous, by restoring my Torah knowledge, in the land of my suffering. (2)

This is a curious interpretation. The reader can appreciate Joseph's sentiments in naming Ephraim; he was grateful for his restored knowledge. But what motivated him to name his first son, Menashe? Was he grateful to have forgotten the Torah he studied? We don't toil in pursuit of knowledge only to rejoice when we forget it!

Critical Thought

A teacher's happiest moment is when the student challenges the material and demands a better explanation.

I know a professor who encourages his students to reject everything he teaches until they independently verify the information. These students will always closely examine the theories and materials they are taught and are not likely to be led astray.

Joseph and my friend, the professor, were thinking along the same lines. Joseph wanted to learn how to research and analyze the precepts of Torah. He did not want to know them only because they were taught to him. He wanted to understand them for himself.

Joseph wanted to sift through every piece of information and objectively determine its authenticity. His studies with his father endowed him with the skills to do so, but those very studies also handicapped him. They caused him hardship in his new endeavor.

The Handicap

Joseph was incapable of objectivity with respect to the precepts he had learned from his father, Jacob.Jacob was a Torah master par excellence and Joseph was inclined to believe that his father's teachings were valid. Yet, without the necessary objectivity, he was unable to independently determine the authenticity of those precepts.

It is for this reason that he prayed that he be granted amnesia with respect to the precepts his father had taught him. His selective amnesia provided him with a clean slate and he was able to begin anew. Unburdened by his inherent bias he could now devote himself to the analysis and corroboration of those precepts.

When he succeeded he was overjoyed. Imagine theconsternation he would experience if he were to forget the information, but proved unable to reassemble it. He would have been devastated. Surely this concern caused him no small measure of anxiety.

His immense relief is reflected in his second son's name. Ephraim, he who has made my studies prosper in my land of suffering. Reassembling the information was a time of anxiety and suffering. Succeeding in his endeavor and prospering in his studies provided immense relief.

Jacob's Choice

When Joseph asked his father to bless his sons Jacob blessed Ephraim ahead of Menashe. Joseph objected on account of Menashe being the elder brother. Jacob replied that despite Menashe's age, Ephrayim's descendants would outshine those of Menashe. Our sages taught that Jacob was speaking of Joshua, a descendant of Ephraim. (3)

Joshua was an incredible scholar in his own right. He was widely hailed as the greatest thinker of his time. His piety knew no bounds. He was a leader, a miracle worker and a prophet. Yet he subjugated himself to Moses. He drank in his master's every word and fully embraced the precepts that Moses taught. (4)

Jacob preferred Joshua's humble acceptance over Menashe's objective thought. Joshuaanalyzed and debated every doctrine that Moses taught, but he ultimately accepted these teachings only because of his faith in Moses, not because he had mastered them.

Before G-d gave the Torah at Sinai, he offered its wisdom to our ancestors. At that time, Joseph's approach was appropriate. However, when G-d gave the Torah to all of Israel at Sinai, he offered us its latent divinity and this required a new approach. Joshua's approach.

Fact and Myth

Does Judaism encourage critical thought? The answer is, absolutely yes! Critical thought is the precursor to wisdom. But critical thought alone is no longer enough because the Torah is no longer only a book of wisdom. It is now a book of divinity. And divinity is received through humility and acceptance. (5)

Torah study is a journey of intellectual and spiritual inquiry. Questions and critical thought are the sign posts that direct our path. Humility and acceptance enable us to reach our destination. (6)

Footnotes

  1. Genesis 41; 51-52
  2. Bereishis Rabba, ch. 97.
  3. Genesis 48; 12-19. See Rashi's commentary (R. Shlomo Yitzchaki, Troyes France, 1040-1105) to verse 19.
  4. Se Nachmanides' commentary ( R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) on Exodus 33; 11.
  5. The question remains why Joshua devoted himself to Moses rather than directly to G-d. The answer is that Moses was our conduit to G-d at Sinai. Through his devotion to Moses Joshua was able to connect with the divinity invested in Torah. The great sages of Israel, who succeeded Moses ,continue to bear this torch. Humble acceptance of Torah as taught to us by our sages, enables us to reach beyond its wisdom and connect with it's divinity.
  6. This essay is based on commentary of Shem Mishmuel (R. Shmuel Salir, Rebbe of Sochaczev, 1855-1927) on genesis 48; 19.